Inside Llewyn Davis is the latest Coens Brothers film after a three year hiatus – a gestation period that generally isn’t considered a long absence in contemporary cinema, but compared to their prolific four film run from 2007’s Oscar winning No Country For Old Men to the perhaps underwhelming but enjoyable True Grit in 2010, it felt like an eternity. Thankfully, the end result is good. Very good, even if it’s unlikely to win over the directors’ detractors or be considered among their best work.
Its central figure is Llewyn Davis, played by relative newcomer Oscar Isaac in a complex role evoking frustration and pathos in equal measure. Starting with more than a hint of Murakami in chasing a mysterious cat, we follow Davis in his final attempts at his music career while dealing with fallouts from his disastrous personal life. A composite figure of many folk era musicians, particularly Dave van Ronk, Davis is a volatile, irresponsible man and arguably the least likable of all Coens protagonists, but with the redeeming feature of integrity and sincerity, and of considerable but not transcendent talent. He is an artist who can’t compromise or not take his chosen art form seriously, shown through some unflinching scenes like an audition in front of F Murray Abraham, when he can’t perform in front of a casual audience like a party trick, or his obvious distaste in performing the comical “Please Mr Kennedy” with Justin Timberlake and Girls’ Adam Driver (both with fine supporting performances). He’s an artist in a cycle where his relationships with others and financial straights are in tatters, and while he can sleep with a friend’s wife and beg, borrow and steal money he can’t compromise the one thing in his life he believes is worth anything, which in turns leads to further damage those other aspects.
Much has been made of the final scene, of an as yet undiscovered Bob Dylan playing the night Davis quits. The film doesn’t presuppose Dylan was undeserving of the career and acclaim he would go on to achieve, but it suggests one of the many factors in his favour was being in the right place at the right time. It’s better to be lucky than good, and Dylan was lucky and good to be able to strike such a chord in the cultural zeitgeist in a way Davis (and van Ronk) didn’t – in a particularly cruel joke on their protagonist, one shot ingeniously recreates the album of art of Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, hinting at what might have been. The Coens continually refer back to their own philosophies of chance and fate – most explicitly in the coin toss in No Country For Old Men, but also in their continual use of the allegory of Schrodinger’s Cat in Barton Fink and A Serious Man (and perhaps literalised in this film?) and how small choices or luck can have major (even cosmic) ramifications.
In this regard Inside Llewyn Davis for me was a critical self-analysis from the Coens – they understand they were the lucky ones. They’re not denigrating their own talents or accomplishments, but understand that like Dylan, their success was as much good fortune as their own doing. With their first films Blood Simple and Raising Arizona they entered the film industry at a crucial time – in a post-Heaven’s Gate Hollywood where big auteur projects had been thrown out in favour of high concept blockbusters and franchises and there was a niche for smaller budget, artistically driven indie films – it’s no coincidence they came into the public consciousness at the same time as films like Blue Velvet and directors like Jim Jarmusch, that helped the Sundance/Miramax indie explosion of the early 90s. A few years earlier or later and the Coens may not have found the same traction for their idiosyncratic brand of filmmaking. That’s not to say their enviable career has been completely free from compromise, and they understand artistic frustrations such as where their fluffy, largely anonymous rom-com Intolerable Cruelty earns twenty times the box office receipts of one of their best achievements, Barton Fink. They don’t like everything about Llewyn Davis, but they sympathise with him as a figure of the continual struggle of the artist.
So I’ve talked about what I considered the meanings behind the film, but have largely ignored the more basic elements of the film, which all come together well. The performances are impressive across the board, and not since Nashville have musical numbers been utilised so ingeniously – every song is not only a delight to listen to, but so crucial to the story and characters that are developed. It’s gorgeously shot with drab greys and washed out colours conveying the bleak tone of the film and of Davis’ plight, and Isaac’s vulnerable performance holds it all together. To an extent the film retreads some thematic ground from some of the other Coens films, particularly Barton Fink and A Serious Man but it’s undeniably one of their major films. Their unique philosophies and brand of humour is on show, and to finish on a light note, John Goodman as an absurd, antagonistic jazz musician steals the show as he does in every Coens film he appears in. It’s been 13 years since their previous collaboration, which was criminally long – his role here might be ultimately a narrative diversion, but is worth the price of admission alone.
Around the Staff: