Dylan Abbott reviews Inside Llewyn Davis, the new film from Ethan and Joel Coen starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake.
“Everything you touch turns to s**t!” these are the icy words spat at by Jean (Carey Mulligan ) which linger in the even icier New York air. “You’re like King Midas’ idiot brother!”
This witty, angry criticism is directed at Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) by his close friend’s girlfriend, who, he has found out, he may have knocked up. This bit of bad luck is an accurate reflection of the Coen Brothers’ eponymous character. Nothing – and I mean nothing – can go right for him.
The hazy, smoke-filled bars and woollen clad, bearded folk singers which abound in the film may suggest a nostalgic reflection on the Greenwich music scene of the 1960s. Yet, the Coen Brothers inject their idiosyncratic tragic humour and humanity which provide a touching insight into this often mythicized – and often overlooked – era of American music through the eyes of one of their most engaging characters to date.
Inside LLewyn Davis paints a living portrait of Llewyn through his inability to maintain friendships, his attempts to remain sincere to his craft and avoid becoming the dreaded “careerist” musician, all the while trying to make ends meet. But his integrity and idealism encourage the audience to continue to root for him, even though he manages to infuriate anyone and everyone he encounters. Llewyn appears to sit comfortably in the role of deadbeat, artistic rogue, having to drift from couch to couch and depend on the generosity of his friends and family. He informs his disinterested nephew, after an argument with his sister, “Your uncle’s a bad man” without even an ounce of regret.
The Coen’s succeed in capturing a week in the life of Llewyn with an intimate stillness, lingering on his failures and documenting the stagnant nature of his existence. Nothing is achieved. There are no dramatic realizations or character arcs or righted-wrongs. Yet it is his failures which make him so believable and empathetic. Great restraint is demonstrated by the Coens not to patronise the audience by guiding us towards a particular judgement of their protagonist. But then again, these are the brothers who brought the world anti-heroes such as The Dude (The Big Lebowski) and H.I McDunnough (Raising Arizona).
New York is similarly photographed in a somewhat less-than romantic light – there are no sweeping Woody Allen-esque love-letter shots of the Big Apple. Instead, the audience is placed at ground level, amongst the dirt and winter slush, to bear the brunt of Llewyn’s unforgiving environment alongside him. The camera navigates through cramped Greenwich apartments and frames awkward interactions between Llewyn and the various characters he annoys. That said, to the credit of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, there is unquestionable beauty in the grimy, snow-speckled alley ways and the smoke-filled folk clubs to which we are granted entry.
Much like the Coens’ previous picture, O Brother Where Art Thou, it’s easy to view Inside Llewyn Davis as much as an ode to a musical epoch as an unorthodox Odyssey. All but one of the included songs are performed live by the various actors, and the notable absence of music otherwise supplies greater gravitas to the few performances the audience is gifted. This is where the film, and also Oscar Isaac as Llewyn, shine the brightest. The renditions given by Isaac as Llewyn provide the most delicate and touching moments of the film, granting the audience (both on screen and in the movie theatres) a glimpse of his vulnerability, his artistry and also the craft that he has sacrificed so much for.
The film ends where it began, emphasising the circular monotony of Llewyn’s situation as a committed singer-songwriter in 60s New York. The melancholy nature of the film may leave a bittersweet taste, but a brief glimpse of a musician in the closing scene of the movie, suspiciously sounding and looking like a young Bob Dylan, may suggest that perhaps times are a-changin’.