Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
dirs: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund
Joel and Ethan Coen are undoubtedly pioneers of the art of modern filmmaking. Their films are held in high accord as innovative, intelligent tales laden with brilliant actors in often quirky, unusual roles. They are usually a nailed on box office success also – their last film, True Grit earning $171 million worldwide. So, I went into the cinema with grandiose expectation for their eagerly awaited new jaunt Inside Llewyn Davis. However, I was somewhat disappointed…
From the opening scene I could not help but feel a slight unease at its lack of visual authenticity. The moving rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” by the shabby, vexatious troubadour Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) at the famous Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village is polluted by crystal-clear recording studio sound and over stylised cinematography, which in truth hampers the film throughout. The scene conjures an image somewhat removed from the smoky, dive bars that the folk music scene came to represent in 1960s New York City. Despite this niggling aspect souring my enjoyment of the film, there is also much to admire. None more so than the lead performance of Oscar Isaac who has been blatantly overlooked by the Academy for the Oscars but gives a genuinely roguish portrayal of a struggling musician couch-surfing across the city intent on eking out a meaningful existence from his music. Isaac is gleefully supported by a stellar cast of actors such as Garrett Hedlund, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver and John Goodman, whose turn as drug-infused jazz fiend Roland Turner is again well worthy of Academy recognition. On second-viewing the film gave me much more satisfaction, however I still cannot fully engage with how pristinely clean and polished the picture is for its time and place.
It would be optimistic to say that Llewyn Davis is anywhere near at a crossroads in his life. The truth is that he is holding his chin just above the water about to drown him as the story meanders through a week in his life during a bitterly cold New York winter. Facing insuperable knock-backs (most of his own making) he has no money, no prospects and no woman to save him. We soon find out he has calamitously impregnated two women, the furiously exasperated Jean (an astonishingly brazen performance from Carey Mulligan) who happens to be the girlfriend of his musician chum Jim (an affable Justin Timberlake), and an absent ex-flame who Davis purposefully avoids when chance puts her in his path. The Coens inflict their Homeric will onto Davis, who we increasingly loath and love in equal measures, as he skits his way from the basket houses of lower Manhattan to the empty music hall of the legendary Gate of Horn club in Chicago for a make-or-break audition. The road-trip is arguably the most interesting and entertaining section of the film as Davis discusses the psychology and egotism of the 1960s music scene with a near-mute beat poet (ironically played by On the Road’s babbling Dean Moriarty Garrett Hedlund) and the flame-lipped Goodman who is in aggressively flamboyant form. After some bizarre complications and harsh truths Davis returns to New York none-the-better.
The majesty of the film is T-Bone Burnett’s consummate musical direction, which is heartbreakingly melancholic and effectively embodies the spirit of the time. The lyrics ooze hope, the arrangements are simply sumptuous. The songs are delivered at poignant moments and hang in the air with acute emotional intensity. The direction is brilliantly haphazard – in one scene there is bleak desperation, the next slapstick comedy. The scene when Davis finally returns a friend’s cat (named Ulysses, of course) that he accidentally let out of the apartment and lost is both achingly upsetting and wildly hilarious. One strength of the film that I truly admired was the Coens flagrant disregard for any type of closure, not only for the story but similarly for the characters who are introduced in a sudden waggish whirlwind one minute and then summarily dismissed in outlandish circumstances the next.
The film will probably be a wet dream to a lot of struggling artists because it is so relatable, however it does not quite work for me as a genuine slice of the 1960s folk scene. It was a political hotbed where the likes of Bob Dylan found a voice to affect a nation. The film fails to explore this and I believe is worse off for it. There will be theories abound stating that this was not its purpose and I can see that might be the case. There is much to love and gorge over, but there is also that little bitter taste that leaves you just short of satisfied.
Ben Haller, 2014