The Coen brothers’ latest film never really gets going. It is a movie of fits and starts, but no clear progressions or end points; it seems to teeter on the edge of a plotline, poised to launch into dramatic heights, yet never fully taking flight. Nothing much really happens.
Which makes it a practically perfect depiction of the stunted musical dreams of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). This is the story of a lack of dramatic fulfilment and take off: Llewyn’s career is never propelled into fame. The monotony of the Metro journeys to a succession of friends’ couches and small-time Greenwich gigs is relentless, a steady series of almost insignificant events, which collectively do not build to a climax, only to the poignant truth that not every one can make it. This is purposeful lack of progression; the Coen brothers have beautifully captured a life that, while travelling all over the place, seems to be going nowhere.
It has been noted that every moment and aspect of the film resembles old vinyl. The dulled colour palette creates the impression of faded cover photos, of forgotten pictures that have gone through the wash; it is literally a wash out. This is Jack Kerouac’s low-life, nomad narrative On The Road on a lower frequency. Garrett Hedlund, who blazed through the recent film adaptation in blur of sex and drug fuelled hedonism, is here a surly and silent car companion. Although Davis’ road trip is accompanied by an offensive, overweight jazz musician (surely any beatnik tale’s ideal character) his presence is one of mainly sleep, and when a Kerouac-esque collapse occurs in an anonymous roadside service station toilet, rather than prompting a downward spiral he is bundled back to his backseat position. For Llewyn any excitement or exploit constantly slips away – his is a life in the backseat.
Yet, while dulled, poignant, bitter and sad, the film is still utterly compelling. The acting is sublime and the songs are heartbreakingly tender. The entire piece is essentially a forlornly beautiful folk song, which, in Llewyn’s own words are “never new and never get old”.