Published Dec 18, 2013The popular question of what a particular artist's best work is will always prompt a debate. But what does "best" mean exactly, especially when the artist has such a varied body of work that it's clear they're not always shooting for the same mark? For Joel and Ethan Coen, whose films are as consistently excellent as they are varied, their best would have to be the one that not only captures aspects of all their work but also encapsulates the essence of who they are as filmmakers; a skeleton key into their complex filmography. In that way, Inside Llewyn Davis is indeed the Coen brothers' best film.
The title character of Inside Llewyn Davis is a folk singer in the Greenwich Village scene of the early 1960s. Davis spends his nights at now-famous venues like the Gaslight Café; in the early hours, he stays with various friends until he inevitably overstays his welcome and then makes the rounds again. Davis is still reeling from the suicide of his former partner, leaving him in his own a sort of purgatory as a solo artist, one where he refuses to sing for entertainment at party because it's his living but still criticizes his friends for their careerism. And so he floats from couch to couch, haunting Greenwich like a ghost himself.
Davis may meander, but the Coens are at the top of their game, harnessing a roster of longtime collaborators to make every aspect of the story note-perfect. Music producer T-Bone Burnett (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) is already getting attention for his magnificent soundtrack of folk standards, which are performed almost entirely live by the cast. Director of photography Bruno Delbonnel, who shot the Coens' segment of Paris, je t'aime, brings the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan to life, the muted palette of the 1960s winter feeling both cold and nostalgic.
It's the Coen brothers themselves, however, who deserve the credit here. The story's mix of American traditions and artistic struggle, spun through eccentric characters, dry humor and, at times, a slightly mystical air, shows shades of Barton Fink, Fargo and The Big Lebowski, among others. The music of Inside Llewyn Davis may give it a spiritual tie to O Brother, Where Art Thou? but Davis's struggle to not get lost between the old guard of folk singers and the next one around the corner has definite echoes of No Country For Old Men and True Grit.
It takes a special kind of assuredness to let the camera linger on the actors while they perform entire songs. The Coen Brothers do just that, letting the music fill in the gaps of their guarded protagonist. In doing so, they give the film a magic that is entirely its own.