Monday, January 6, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis Movie Review

The Coen brothers love failures. They love characters who just hopelessly fail at what they do. Any great literary character has to have some flaw. Flaws make us human. The Greeks understood that. The most memorable Coen Brothers protagonists are defined by flaws and made human by the occasional glimmer of having it together. Mostly their heroes are lucky to get out alive. Their latest creation, Llewyn Davis, embodies elements we’ve seen before in their films. He’s going through a Job-like test a la Larry Gopnik. He’s Tom Regan without the wits and strokes of luck. He’s Jeff Lebowski without a bed of his own. He’s Everett McGill without a plan. He’s Barton Fink without the success. He’s all of this, but still entirely original.

Looking at it this way, you realize the Coens, no matter what the setting, are always first and foremost exploring character. This time their palette is the Greenwich Village folk music scene of 1961. They have an incredible knack for capturing time and place in a unique vision of their own. It’s New York at its periphery, but in a Coen brothers way. And their ear for local dialect and turns of phrase is unparalleled. Their characters from Los Angeles sound distinct from those from Minnesota who speak differently from thos in Texas. But they all sound like Joel and Ethan Coen creations.

Llewyn is a sad man. He might be one of the saddest characters they’ve created. The night we meet him is actually the tail end of his week-long story, though we don’t figure that out until later. He performs a plaintive and tearful song about life not being worth living without a love. And for Llewyn, the only thing it seems he loves is his music, but not in any traditional way. It’s more out of rigid loyalty to a higher purpose. He can’t envision himself as anything but an artist. He fits right in with that whole folk/beat generation movement of living the Bohemian lifestyle and lambasting any suggestion that you settle down, get a day job, buy a house and become “a square.” That’s death to Llewyn, but common sense to anyone without artistic drive. Outside the club, Llewyn gets punched in the nose and kicked in the gut by a dark and mysterious, deep-voiced figure. This is Llewyn’s disregard for everyone around him finally coming back to literally smack him in the face.

The tale that follows takes Llewyn door to door, crashing on friends’ couches, trying to scrounge royalty money out of his sad-sack solo record which isn’t selling. The trailer gives away what happened to his partner, but going in cold we don’t know explicitly until late in the film. He goes to Chicago to impress a promoter played by F. Murray Abraham, who bluntly informs him there’s no money in what he does. It seems Llewyn was at his best when complemented by a more upbeat partner, who ironically was the one depressed enough to kill himself. In his travels he also meets an aging and bitterly cynical jazz musician (John Goodman), whose valet (Garrett Hedlund) is a less violent version of Gaear Grimsrud from Fargo.

Llewyn is a lost soul. Oscar Isaac’s big round soulful eyes and soft facial features seem to reveal a window into that vastness, but we never really get inside Llewyn Davis. Isaac has the demeanor of the character to a T. He constantly looks hurt and freezing and like he can’t quite believe the conversation he’s having, whether it’s his friend and professional rival, Jim (Justing Timberlake), or Jim’s wife (Carey Mulligan), who is pissed off at him for possibly being the one to get her pregnant. Everything he touches turns to shit, she tells him. He thinks he’s a tortured genius, but at the end of the day it’s money that buys things like food, clothes, a place to sleep, and the abortion that will absolve him of parental responsibility (maybe).

I always find Coen brothers movies so difficult to pin down in review form right off the bat. I know whether I like it or not. I have a sense of whether or not it’s a substantial work, but as for the ‘why’ of it, I’m often at a loss for words. Inside Llewyn Davis looks as great as the best Coen brothers movies. Bruno Delbonnel had big shoes to fill as cinematographer in Roger Deakins’ absence, but does an astounding job with high contrast light and shadow and a palette of dark earth tones, grays, and blacks. The whole film feels like a sleazy underground smoke-filled nightclub. And the wintry New York and Chicago settings are bled of all brightness and color to reflect the dreary world Llewyn thinks he lives in.

Not only is Llewyn one of their saddest characters, but this could be their most melancholy film, made even more so by the songs produced by T Bone Burnett, which are also performed by Isaac and the rest of the cast. The folk music featured in the film evokes the biggest emotions I think I’ve ever felt during one of their films. I’m not sure this is a great film or even one of my favorites of their, but they’ve previously set the bar so high that if this were a film by anyone else it would be an incredible achievement. And we really can’t fault them now for already having reached greatness o many times in the past.

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