I’ve been a devotee of the Coen Brothers since early 1992, when Barton Fink became not only the first of their films I saw, but also the first film I saw on the big screen anywhere in London’s West End (the Lumiere, since you ask). Needless to say, it has been an agonising 11-month wait since Inside Llewyn Davis first debuted at the Cannes Film Festival until I was able to experience it for myself. I had a couple of chances to catch it on flights in recent months, but felt the experience would be worth delaying until the optimum viewing conditions presented themselves, and so when it happened, at HKIFF, it had a lot to live up to, but fortunately proved well worth the wait.
In some respects the film is most similar to O Brother, Where Art Thou? as it proves a meandering episodic journey through a very specific time period and sub-genre of American music. However, Barton Fink also casts a long yet welcome shadow over the central struggle of the lone artist, fighting to retain his integrity, purity and pretensions in the face of a commercialised industry. In both films it proves a Pyrrhic endeavour, as it is these very pretensions that prove the artist’s undoing.
Gorgeously shot in almost faded soft focus by Roger Deakins, the film instantly feels of its time, while Oscar Isaac gives a commanding central performance as the struggling musician, who constantly proves his own worst enemy as he battles to make a name for himself in the New York folk scene moments before Bob Dylan crashed the party.
One of the Coens’ more downbeat offerings, there is nevertheless plenty of humour throughout, not to mention the wonderful songs and a raft of fine supporting performances from the likes of Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, F. Murray Abraham and Justin Timberlake – to name but a few.
Already I can tell this is a film that will reward repeat viewings and will grow more intimate, warm-hearted and cherished with each subsequent visit. The Coens continue to amaze with their versatility, craft and passion for the medium. They are among a very small group of filmmakers working in America today who strive to make cinema create new kinds of magic for them with each new project, rather than simply use it as a tool to tell a story or further the career of a particular actor. The Coens are actively facilitating the evolution of the medium, while continuing to grow themselves as artists in a way Llewyn Davis, one suspects, never will.