INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS – Film Review by Paul Laight
**CONTAINS CLIPS & SPOILERS**
It’s always a good reason to carry on living when you know Joel and Ethan Coen are bringing out a new film. Their sophisticated melding of genre and art movies are always beautifully shot and carefully constructed with terrific scripts and casts. They also have an inimitable quirkiness, memorable characters and a fantastic use of music. Even their remakes are generally better than most filmmakers’ “original” offerings. What I’m saying is that I really wanted to enjoy Inside Llewyn Davis and do you know what: Inside Llewyn Davis rocked. Well, it melodically swayed to its’ own harmonious beat.
The Coen Bros. last film was the impressive big budget remake of John Wayne horse-opera True Grit (2010) while Inside Llewyn Davis is a lower-budget affair with more akin to their dark character comedies Barton Fink (1991) and A Serious Man (2009). It centres on eponymous anti-heroic folk-musician Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) as he struggles with both his personal and professional life on a day-to-day basis in 1960s New York. He’s not a likeable character but is a wonderful musician with an earthy if not wholly commercial talent. Here the film works as companion piece to Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown (1999) which was also about a talented but far more scummy jazz musician.
The Coen Bros. often place their characters in interesting settings e.g. the snowy landscapes of Fargo (1996); or give them jobs not usually seen in movies such as the Barber in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) and Gym Instructors in Burn After Reading (2008); or hobbies like the bowling dudes in The Big Lebowski (1998). Moreover, they are also very fond of period pieces and have featured the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s etc. within their oeuvre; in fact the only era they may not have covered is the future. Inside Llewyn Davis is a nostalgia-filled journey back in time to the 60s folk and smoke-filled, bohemian, beatnik back bars of Greenwich Village, New York. I don’t know much about this period of Americana but it is a time that is beautifully evoked and stunningly designed; browns and beiges dominating a cool yet also warm wintry palette. It is a expertly crafted simulacrum that never slips into parody either as shown in the songs used which are faithful renditions of traditional and original numbers.
Episodic in structure the film drifts like couch-surfing Llewyn Davis introducing us to a whole new set of Coenesque eccentrics. Our ‘hero’ is an archetypal rolling stone gathering no moss but rather a whole host of issues. These problems range from a missing neighbour’s cat, pregnant “girlfriend”, homelessness, family dysfunction, indifferent agent, lack of money and career prospects. Described as an anti-Midas by Carey Mulligan’s very angry Jean, Llewyn’s life has stalled and while he plays and sings beautifully he is more menstrual than minstrel. He’s a rather pathetic character drifting through life having seemingly fallen out of love with music despite still pursuing a career as a solo artist. Throughout, actor Oscar Isaac delivers a phenomenal performance full of anger, pain and heart all with an underlying glint of sly humour.
As someone who has been in a band when I was young and someone who continues to try a forge some semblance of a path as a filmmaker and comedian I recognised much of the jaded feelings the character experienced and empathised with the continual rejections he faced. But I also felt distanced as in my opinion one should relax a bit and enjoy the journey. Llewyn Davis has a gift — more talented than I could ever hope — but is a character that is depressed by his current existence and nothing seems to be able to shake him out of the funk. There is an air of self-destructiveness, anger and bitterness too which affects his relationships with the decent group of people around who try to help him. The Coen Bros. have in the past been accused of making films that lack heart. I never agreed with that but could see why people may see their work as more style than substance. This film strums away such accusations with a truly mesmerising character study full of heart and soul and regret and fear, humour and emotion.
On the surface the film could be described as a “musician trying to make it” film but underneath it’s about loss and grief in my view; loss of a career following the death of his double-act partner, loss of direction, loss of love for music. Part mood-poem, part-road-movie, part-musical, part-comedy it has a brilliant cast and some wonderful acting and musical performances. I’m not a fan of folk music per se, and have little knowledge of the era but that didn’t matter as this is a gem of a film; a cyclical-structured study of loss about an unlovable loser and struggling artist with a bit of Greek tragedy thrown in. If you love the Coen Bros. you’ll certainly love Llewyn Davis.