The story of the struggling artist, eking out an existence from his work and relying on the goodwill of friends, is one that has been told many times before and it is the subject of Joel and Ethan Coen in their latest film, Inside Lleywn Davis. But what starts as a picaresque narrative dealing with a familiar idea becomes something that is much harder to define and the result is a highly original work, full of leitmotifs and temporal shifts.
Set in New York in the early 1960s, just before the explosion of the folk scene, it tells the tale of Llewyn Davis, a down-at-heel singer who seems to be plagued by bad luck. He is someone who lives on the fringes of society, refusing to get a steady job and settle down. As the story unfolds we are drip-fed details about his life but there are always plenty of unanswered questions, for example, why is he beaten up outside the nightclub and what has happened to his partner in the folk duo of which he was once part?
In this film there is a sense in which relationships and friendships are ephemeral. Even the begrudging friendship Llewyn strikes up with a ginger cat is hollow after we discover that it is not even the same cat and in what looks like a conscious attempt to avoid sentimentality he later abandons the animal when he has the chance to help it.
Llewyn has always led a transient life, first in the Marines and then as a folk singer, and yet the respectable lives led by his father and his sister seem no more appealing or rewarding. He undertakes a road trip to Chicago with two strangers to meet a record executive and as he travels across this vast landscape, reminiscent of No Country for Old Men, he becomes stuck in a kind of purgatory where everything is tantalisingly out of reach. His efforts to forge a successful musical career or go back to the Marines elude him in an almost Kafkaesque way and he is left feeling tired and drained.
This might seem depressing but the film is punctuated by dark humour and moments of Schadenfreude. With a raised eyebrow and a knowing glance, we are invited to laugh at the increasingly commercialised folk scene. Another great comic performance came from John Goodman who plays the heroin-addled, cane-carrying jazz musician who travels with Llewyn to Chicago.
Overall, this is a deeply insightful film, brimming with difficult questions, pathos and humanity. And while I am not a huge folk music fan, the score, created by T Bone Burnett, is beautifully melancholy.
Inside Llewyn Davis is on at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema until 13th February.