Friday, December 6, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis

Grade: 90/A-

Heroes have never been the Coen Brothers’ MO. The filmmaking duo specializes in tales of losers and deadbeats, has-beens and never-weres. But the read on the Coens as smart-alecks who don’t care about anyone has always been reductive at best, wrongheaded at worst, and it’s rarely more apparent than it is in Inside Llewyn Davis, a film about an unknown singer (loosely based on Dave Van Ronk), but who isn’t any less admirable because of it.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling singer-songwriter in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. He’s struggling after an abruptly ended partnership, and his agent isn’t doing much to support his solo album. His friends don’t help him so much as they put up with him, his lack of dependability, and his standoffishness. Llewyn screws up constantly, whether it’s losing one friend’s cat or impregnating Jean (Carey Mulligan), wife and singing partner to his patient friend Jim (Justin Timberlake). Llewyn goes on a trip to Chicago as a last-ditch effort to get somewhere, but it might be too late.

Inside Llewyn Davis marks the return of T-Bone Burnett, the man behind the authentic, evocative bluegrass and country soundtrack to the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? The folk soundtrack here is just as good, with its mournful tunes (performed brilliantly by the cast) playing as a perfect commentary to Llewyn’s situation. Introduced singing “Hang Me, Oh, Hang Me”, he’s a man who’s down and out, who’s been kicked around by the business, and who just might be ready to give up. One person says to Llewyn that music comes from joy, but his performances of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” and “The Death of Queen Jane” are from places of great pain.

That said, the first half of Inside Llewyn Davis is a miniature comic masterpiece, with some of the funniest material in the Coens’ oeuvre. In a revelatory performance, Isaac doesn’t sand off any of Llewyn’s rough edges. He’s an asshole, plain and simple, albeit a talented and strangely sympathetic one. To some degree it’s fun to see his selfish sad-sack kicked around (literally, at one point) and scolded by a wonderfully downbeat Mulligan, whose Jean dubs him “King Midas’s idiot brother”, who turns everything he touches to shit. The highlight comes early at a recording session of “Please Mr. Kennedy”, a goofy novelty song penned by Jim (actually a real 60s novelty song), featuring Adam Driver from Girls as a Jewish singing cowboy whose inflection of the song’s goofy interjections (“UH-oh!” “Out-er! SPACE!”) is perfect next to Isaac’s deep embarrassment and everyone else’s straight-faced earnestness.

Inside Llewyn Davis was notably shot not by regular Coen cinematographer Roger Deakins, but by Amelie’s Bruno Delbonnel. It’s an appropriate choice, as Delbonnel brings with him a hazy look (reportedly inspired by the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) that suggests a lost era, one filled with disappointment. Indeed, as funny as Llewyn’s setbacks often are, he has integrity to go with his big dreams. His failure might be at least partially of his own doing, and his commitment to his ideal view of the folk music scene turns him into a judgmental prick, but he doesn’t compromise for a career he doesn’t want. He’s another Coen hero who’s trying to define himself, and where his place is in the world, if there even is one.

The latter half of the film, starting when John Goodman enters as a hilariously contemptuous jazz musician (“We played all of the notes, not three chords on a OO-kulele”) is funny, but it’s a bit more rambling. Yet maybe that’s appropriate, as it’s part of a strange Odysseian journey of Llewyn Davis, in the middle of a tale that would make a pretty good folk song of its own. Bob Dylan, the breakout star of the Greenwich folk scene, is only referenced in one scene, and that’s appropriate. This film isn’t about the winners. It’s about the people around him who didn’t make it, and why they were worth a damn, too.

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  1. I really enjoyed this review. You do a great job of talking about the movie while going through your plot synopsis which is something I really struggle with. I always feel compelled to write a brief synopsis, but I have trouble integrating it into the rest of the article. In any case keep up the good work, you seem to know your way around the written word. You've earned yourself a new follower.

    1. Thank you, Wes. I really appreciate it, and any feedback at all. Plot synopsis can be a pain in the ass, it's through trying over and over again that I got to actually getting to only what I felt was absolutely essential that the reader understand.

      I clicked on your blog and saw that today's post is "Cinematography 101", so I'm putting it on my reading list.