By Simon Miraudo
January 15, 2014
My first viewing of Inside Llewyn Davis occurred just before I embarked on a four-week holiday, and I was glad to have the break between the screening and my inevitable writing of the review. Unravelling the intricacies of the Coen brothers‘ latest torturous morality tale is not anyone’s sensible idea of ‘a relaxing time’, which is why I instead chose to unwind with a Good Wife marathon. (Don’t knock it ’til you try it.)
I remarked afterwards that this story – all about the circuitous struggles of ramblin’ folk troubadour Llewyn Davis over one week in Greenwich Village, 1961 – was just so sad, but I felt a distance from this very chilly, black-and-blue tinged tale. That didn’t keep me from purchasing the soundtrack immediately, because even on first viewing it struck me as a keeper. Producer T. Bone Burnett – just as he did on O Brother Where Art Thou – has arranged a note-perfect collection of idiosyncratic folk standards, performed in their entirety on screen by the uber-talented cast. And since they’re performed in their entirety, listening to the soundtrack was like replaying the movie in my head, and the more I replayed the movie in my head, its iciness melted away.
I’ve lived with Inside Llewyn Davis for some time – a rare treat for a reviewer – and it took this long to realise it wasn’t a morality tale at all. It resembles closely A Serious Man (perhaps the writer-directors’ most divisive picture) in that the protagonist must similarly endure a series of Job-like trials. In A Serious Man, however, the Coens are cruel Gods; like giggling little boys holding a magnifying glass over their ethically-tortured, sun-scorched ants. I felt none of their relish in the torture of Llewyn Davis. I felt affection. I felt sympathy. I felt finally the Coen brothers had a hero they loved, and I in turn have grown to love him too.
Oscar Isaac stars – and becomes a star – as Llewyn, a creation inspired by one of the folk scene’s unsung mainstays, Dave Van Ronk. Davis is an undeniable bastard who can’t quite catch a break; a mooching screw-up, unable to put his life back together following the suicide of his former singing partner. He intrudes on married vocalists Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), begging for board, but never hiding his disdain for their heavily-varnished brand of friendly folk. Still, it can’t keep the cash-poor Llewyn from accepting Jim’s paying offer to help record the mind-numbingly misguided novelty protest song Please Mr. Kennedy, wherein they beg America’s president not to send them into outer space. (Watching this studio session unfold, with Adam Driver appearing briefly as their sonorous backing singer, is too funny.) That he can look nice-guy Jim in the eye despite having impregnated the perpetually-frustrated Jean – for whom he needs the money to pay for her abortion – is just one of the ways in which the Coens paint Llewyn as maybe not the world’s greatest guy.
That said, his bastardry is somewhat understandable. Llewyn’s not just a broken man; he’s a man missing an entire half, that of his former duet partner. Their lone successful record, Fare Thee Well (performed by Isaac and Marcus Mumford), haunts the film, and the universe hammers home their fracture by making Llewyn experience pretty much every spirit-killing test twice, as if he’s suffering for the both of them. There are multiple dead ends, multiple failed opportunities, multiple disappointments, multiple abortions, multiple dinner parties where he doesn’t belong. He even encounters two ginger cats over this eventful seven-day period, and they act as his only unjudging companions. Well, them and the other significant double-act in the world of Inside Llewyn Davis: Joel and Ethan Coen.
The Coens joke that the first draft was so devoid of plot, they threw in an adorable cat for their hero to befriend, lose, and then be reunited with. (They previously goofed that when adapting a book for the screen, Joel holds the pages open while Ethan types.) That lackadaisical attitude is not reflected in their technical craftsmanship, which remains peerless. Bruno Delbonnel – stepping in for the Coens’ usual cinematographer Roger Deakins – does a fine job, photographing Llewyn’s snowy, dream-like world, helping to create one of the essential ‘New York movies’.
Llewyn does makes one departure from New York, venturing on a twisted odyssey to Chicago, hitching with a man of few words (Garrett Hedlund), and a curious jazz man of way too many (John Goodman). He’s on a mission to meet and get signed by producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), who, crushingly, tells Llewyn after an impassioned performance, “I don’t see much money in this.” I mainly mention this side-plot to highlight the talented actors on the fringes, deployed for only a handful of scenes and able to leave the most lasting of impressions. Mulligan and Timberlake too – who’ve displayed their singing chops on plenty other occasions – continue to astonish, particularly with their soulful performance of ‘Five Hundred Miles’.
The closest this plot-free feature comes to a climax is when Llewyn is forced to evaluate whether or not he should continue to trouble himself with the music business, or return to the merchant navy. The answer, of course, comes every time he’s performing, guitar in hand, and both he and the audience are transported to a place free of disappointment and difficult-decision making. No words adequately convey the miracle of Isaac’s performance; the way he can make this belligerent a**hole so appealing, and how compelling a presence he is on stage.
The directors would love us to think they’re making it up as they go along, and for a long while, Inside Llewyn Davis feels as if it might have been. Yet, on further reflection (in the cold light of a concluded Good Wife marathon), the thoughtfulness emerges fully, as do the echoes of repeated scenes, and the revelation of the film’s final punchline (involving one singer’s discovery by The New York Times over another, an hilarious delight for those with some knowledge of this monumental year in music history). The Coens’ latest feels a lot like their past works, but special somehow, and it’s nice to see familiar filmmakers illuminated differently. As Llewyn reminds us of folk songs themselves, they continue to exist only because of the way they’re passed along: “It’s not new, but it never gets old.” Same goes for Inside Llewyn Davis.
Inside Llewyn Davis arrives in Australian cinemas January 16, 2014.