Article By: Dan Clark
The Coen Brothers should just make all the movies. Their latest Inside Llewyn Davis is yet another example of their incredible capabilities as filmmakers. For nearly thirty years the Coens have shown their range in crafting film is simply impeccable. One moment they are making a darkly twisted comedy that elegantly flirts with the line of decency, and the next they are crafting a masterful tale of high tension and human drama.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a bitter ballad about a struggling folk singer unable to catch a break in life let alone in the music industry. This bleak character study shows the cruelty of fate and how talent is very rarely a barometer for future success. It is a film that is never in a hurry—allowing the atmosphere to soak in like a spilled beer a pristine white carpet. Even with all the somberness the unrelenting urge to continue to seek that long sought after dream remains vigilant. Inside Llewyn Davis may be cold to the touch, but to the ears it is soothing sound of persistence.
Oscar Isaac gives a multifaceted star making performance as Llewyn Davis, a man always on the lookout for a gig and a couch to crash on. Life for an artist is typically a harsh one and the life of Davis exemplifies that mantra. Llewyn is trying to make it as a solo act after his longtime partner committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge…not the Brooklyn Bridge which has been the traditional choice. The film is a snapshot of the life of Llewyn. Within a weeks’ time we see the cruel cycle he is unable to escape from, although more could have been done to make him somewhat of a redeemable figure. If that would have occurred this could have easily gone down as one of the Coen’s all-time greats.
Every moment of success is counteracted with some sort of adversity of his own doing. As the films lives the lonely life of a traveling folk singer a lot of time is spent in dingy bars that have just enough light to see the cigarette smoke saturate the air. Llewyn by all accounts is essentially homeless. His possessions are limited to whatever he can carry—mainly his cloths, guitar, and oddly enough his friend’s cat that he mistakenly allowed out of the apartment.
Isaac plays the character with a subdued frustration. One look at his face and you can see a broken man who has been worn down by the tribulations of life. All this misfortune comes pouring out the moment he picks up his guitar and begins to perform. His voice has poignancy to it as if his soul is undergoing a therapeutic reconstruction. He is at his most vulnerable state as music provides a comfort to work through the issues he normally avoids.
Musicality is one of the films biggest strong suits. Not since the Coen’s O Brother, Where Art Thou has music played such a predominate role in one of their films. They use music as a story telling device akin to a verbose musical, but do it in a more restrained manner that never feels awkward. Watching Llewyn along with his friends acquaintances give some full length performances provide escape from all the dreadfulness. One of the standout scenes saw Oscar Isaac along with costars Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver record the song “Dear Mr. Kennedy”. It stood out because it was one of the few moments of levity. Also it showed the disconnect Llewyn has with the popular music of the time.
Technically Inside Llewyn Davis is a period drama as it takes place in 1961, but the time period is never a dominating factor. Coen’s tend set their films in a place where time stands still. Everything from the cars to the buildings look slightly decrypted. Nothing new appears to exist in this world. Minus a few stylistic choices this is a film that could easily be taking place today or forty years ago.
Unlike most Coen’s films this was not shot by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, because he was too busy shooting that little indie hit Skyfall . Deakins leaves some rather big shoes to fill and to Bruno Delbonnel’s credit he does a stunning job bringing this world alive with his camera. A melancholic tone permeates every inch of every frame. This look epitomizes Llewyn’s life of longing.
Llewyn is not someone you are necessarily eager to route for. During a dinner, his friends where gracious enough to invite him to, he has a blowout session when they are audacious enough to ask him to perform. Along with his limited belongings he carries with him a pretentiousness towards his craft. He is quick to judge others, and is resentful when he sees success fall to those he feels are undeserving.
The characters that surround LLewyn are not as colorful as you would expect for a Coen’s film. Carey Mulligan for example plays Jean a fellow singer that seems to hate Llewyn with every fiber of her being. She comes off a little too strong as she belittles him with every chance she can get. She does have legitimate reasons, and it’s obvious she is angrier with herself than with him. Still, her act quickly grew tiresome. There were a few other standout performances most notably John Goodman as a veteran musician. Goodman does what he always does—owns every moment he is own screen.
At this point the Coen’s own the medium of film. It is not hyperbolic to say that they are presently America’s best filmmakers. Inside Llewyn Davis may not be looked at as one of the best films they have ever made, but even a film that is not in their top echelon is still one of the best movies of the year.