At a smoky Greenwich Village joint called the Gaslight Cafe in 1961, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) croons a soulful ballad. "Hang me, oh hang me," he pleads, "I'll be dead and gone." Such is the rhetoric of Inside Llewyn Davis, a film more sweetly tragic than perhaps any yet in the Coen Brothers canon. Described by Ethan Coen as an "odyssey", Inside Llewyn Davis follows the winding path of the titular folk singer Llewyn Davis, a man for whom impeccable facial hair is the only apparent comfort. Loathed by his ex-lover Jean (Carey Mulligan), who calls him the "idiot brother of King Midas", and rejected by manipulative agents and record execs alike, Llewyn finds himself skipping from couch to couch, barely able to survive in the bitter New York winter. In a trajectory reminiscent of Barton Fink, things escalate when Davis loses the marmalade cat of a bourgeois couple who lend him their couch and a plate of moussaka for the night. A few hours later, he learns that Jean is pregnant, and that he'll be paying for the abortion. Paralysed by indecision, Llewyn turns to what he knows – the military, his ex-marine father, his sister – and finds them staring blankly back. Impossible though his situation may be, Inside Llewyn Davis is not a defeatist film. It's peppered with blackly comic performances, from Carey Mulligan's irate Jean, to John Goodman as a hulking, thoroughly unpleasant jazz musician. Its tragedy comes in the form of powerlessness, firstly against the music industry, and therefore with that most folk of enemies – society in general. Giving rhyme to the protest is, of course, the music. T Bone Burnett's arrangements are given unprecedented screen time – so much so it makes O Brother Where Art Thou? seem vaguely quiet. The songs are beautiful, but as the film progresses they begin to sound increasingly futile, like cries in the dark. In one scene, Llewyn goes to visit his senile father in a nursing home, and sings him an emotive ballad. He simply turns away. Just as the music turns back in on itself, Llewyn's narrative begins to circle around the plug hole, winding back via trauma and Greyhound buses. If Inside Llewyn Davis is an odyssey, it represents a failed one. Bittersweet, intelligent and witty, its absolute achievement is to spare the melodrama, and to instead allow for that raw impulse to take over – hot, unfathomable injustice. 5/5
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