Dir/Wri: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen • Pro: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Terence Winter • DOP: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen • ED: Thelma Schoonmaker • DES: Jess Gonchor • CAST: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund
The Coen brothers are undoubtedly among contemporary cinema’s master storytellers, and Inside Llewyn Davis joins the ranks of their best work.
Set in the folk scene of New York in the early 1960s, their story focuses on Llewyn Davis, a musician. The death of his partner, Mike Timlin, leaves him to pursue a solo career, but it’s not easy to make a living and keep one’s artistic integrity. So, Llewyn trudges through wintry New York, looking for a place to keep his stuff, rest his head, and get some money. He even takes care of a cat.
Joel Coen admits that the film doesn’t really have a plot. The Coens take their simple premise and imbue it with the usual pleasures of their impressive oeuvre: great characters, brilliant dialogue, stylish shooting and good music.
Inside Llewyn Davis rests on the acclaimed filmmaking duo’s skills as writers. Their clever and frequent use of repetition in their writing makes even an elevator attendant — “I have to run the elevators” — a memorable character. They consider every speaking part capable of offering some pleasure, and each of their films benefits from an array of unique characters.
Here, these include John Goodman playing talkative jazz musician Roland Turner, who ambles about with two canes, and whose ramblings conceal a rather menacing character. Jerry Greyson plays Mel Novikoff, who struggles to manage Legacy, a record label. Max Casella plays Pappi Corsicato, who runs the Gasoline Café, where Llewyn performs. He’s not sure about folk music’s appeal, but he’s happy to take sexual favours from female musicians in return for arranging performances at the café.
Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan play Jim and Jean, an act that performs at Pappi’s place, and they also help out their friend Llewyn. Timberlake provides one of the film’s highlights with his rendition of the ridiculously catchy “Please Mr Kennedy”. Jean’s abrasive attitude to Llewyn stems from their complicated history together. This conflict really drives the film before Llewyn leaves New York for Chicago.
Oscar Isaacs, as Llewyn Davis, is on-screen for almost the full length of the film. It’s a difficult role, as Llewyn remains aloof, cut off from his friends, and difficult to get on with. He takes his music seriously and wants others to take him seriously as a musician. On paper, Llewyn’s character doesn’t seem appealable, but Isaacs makes him likeable. It’s a great performance, matched by the excellent supporting cast.
The album cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, in which Don Hunstein photographed Suze Rotolo, Dylan’s girlfriend, clinging to Dylan as they walk through New York’s wintry West Village, inspired the film’s distinctive look. DOP Bruno Delbonnel employs a colour palette consisting mostly of a range of greys, emphasising the bleak atmosphere in which Llewyn lives.
T-Bone Burnett scored a major hit in assembling bluegrass musicians for O Brother, Where Art Thou? Here, Burnett and the Coen brothers turn to the American folk revival. The film strips the music of its associations with left-wing politics. The songs sound wonderful, but their lyrical content is questionable. One wonders what the songs mean. “You might have heard it before. It’s not new and it never gets old and it’s a folk song,” says Llewyn. He sings well, he sings passionately, but, really, what is the point of depoliticized folk music? Dylan went electric, and folk music faded from pop culture.
Folk music provides an apt area for the Coen brothers to tell their story. Folk songs, as a medium, seem lost in 1960s New York. A rendition of “The Auld Triangle” by four men clad in Aran sweaters in the Gasoline Café highlights this. Their appearance is comic. Their apparel and their music are out of sync with the broader social changes hinted at in the film. Producer Bud Grossman (F Murray Abraham) “sees very little money” in what Llewyn has to offer as a musician.
What matters in folk music, it seems, is not so much the meaning of the lyrics and the origins of the songs, but the quality of the performance, the singing and the musicianship. In this way, folk music provides an apt analogy to the success of the Coen brothers, whose movies are frequently self-referential in setting out the import of the story they tell. They usually send up their stories as being just for the sake of telling an amusing story. The Big Lebowski features The Stranger telling a tale about the Dude. In Burn after Reading, the CIA are quite unsure what to take from the events reported to them. Inside Llewyn Davis features Ulysses, a cat that escapes from an apartment in which Llewyn stays. The cat’s reappearance links certain scenes and events, but one probably shouldn’t read too much into it.
Circular and serendipitous, Inside Llewyn Davis is a gentler, yet no less accomplished, addition to the Coen brothers’ body of work, which continues to evoke admiration.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Inside Llewyn Davis is released on 24th January 2014