Wednesday, January 15, 2014

'Inside Llewyn Davis' (2013) directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of a folk music Sisyphus.  Swaddled in corduroy, guitar strapped to his back he pushes a boulder up a mountain, inch by painful inch.  When he reaches the top the boulder rolls right back down to the bottom and the whole process begins again.  The Coens have always had an eye for splicing mythology with contemporary stories; The Odyssey in O Brother Where Art Thou, or The Book of Job in A Serious Man - here they place a typically Coenesque hero within an inescapable trap of culture, time and space.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a perpetually failing, sofa-surfing bum, though an admittedly obviously talented bum. Greenwich Village, New York in 1961 has its own set of myths, though here we see the flip side of the coin: fatigue, poverty and the icy cold - framed through an omnipresent fug of cigarette smoke.  Like the best Coen protagonists, Llewyn is portrayed as the one clear-eyed figure in a world gone mad, a man who's become the butt of a cosmic joke, having to deal with a gallery of grotesques; the mine of 'funny-lookin' character actors that only Coens appear to be able to tap.

The bright spot in all the misery is a tabby cat, one of the few creatures in this frozen urban landscape to offer even a smidge of unconditional kindness to Llewyn (and even then it escapes at the earliest opportunity).   Aside from the troubles caused by this disobedient cat, Inside Llewyn Davis ditches any semblance of driving narrative early on in the film.  Llewyn bumbles from sofa to sofa, tossed by chance from one situation to the next, trying his best to cope with whatever miseries the universe has decided to buffet him with today.

Even the cat is a good actor.
This lack of a clear narrative isn't a criticism, the subject and setting of the film reverberates around the hazy structure of the story.  Llewyn sings wistful, melancholy songs about characters who are hungry, poor, cold and far from home.  The wry punchline is that Llewyn is essentially living a folk song and hating every moment of it.  The episodic structure of Inside Llewyn Davis, miniature stories as verses punctuated by choruses of musical numbers thus becomes a loose folk song itself.  

The Coens obviously have a soft spot and high artistic regard for folk music, yet they're never afraid to poke fun at its subject matter.  Folk music is, by design, a static genre. Musicians dressed in outfits that no-one would bat an eye at in 1911, 1961 or 2011, sitting on stools, pluck away at beaten-up acoustic guitars, playing the songs written by long dead and anonymous people. This lack of change isn't necessarily a bad thing, but a consequence is that it sets in stone the 'true' folk experience and mindset; an examples in the film is Llewyn's disgust at his friends treating music as a career that'll lead to a comfortable life in the suburbs, or outside the film the vitriol spewed at Dylan when he dared to go electric.

In Llewyn's misery the Coens pinpoint the paradox of folk: success equals failure.  If you're a rich, popular musician touring to sold-out arenas, staying in plush hotels while singing about the melancholy of being broke and riding the rails then you're a hypocrite.  Conversely, if you're playing to empty bars with nothing to your name except the clothes on your back and an acoustic guitar, tumbling through a freefall life with no parachute then you may be hungry, cold and deeply miserable but dammit, at least you're authentic .

This is an classically Coenesque, farcical situation, the film going to great lengths to convey this futile problem of trying really hard to be a success, but in that success losing what made you succeed in the first place.  This psychic torment is written on the face of Oscar Isaac, whose deadpan, increasingly pissed off and sleep-deprived stare speaks volumes as to his state of mind.   Isaac is a great here, and not being a big name I wondered just where the hell he came from to pull out a performance this complete.   I assumed he was new to the screen, so was surprised to learn I've seen him quite a bit, most notably as ex-con Standard in Drive, where he again shares a screen with Carey Mulligan - proof of a chameleonic acting ability that can only bode well for his future in cinema.

Freewheelin' turns out to be less fun than it looks.
The rest of the cast fits snugly into their roles as only the Coens (and perhaps Tarantino) can accomplish.  One of the best arrows in the Coens directorial quiver is the ability to cast the perfect actor in the role, be it A-listers like Justin Timberlake as a more pop-minded folk musician who seems destined for financial success or character actors like Sylvia Kauders, who's great as a faintly absent-minded receptionist.  Perhaps the most oddly touching performance is also the most restrained.  Stan Carp plays Llewyn's apparently catatonic father, who does literally nothing other than looking wistfully out of a window and slightly changing his facial expression, yet manages to instil this most minute of movements with impossible sadness.

I suspect Inside Llewyn Davis is going to divide audiences.  If you prefer a traditionally structured story with a beginning, middle and end you're going to be disappointed.  This is essentially all middle, or, to be reductive, 'just a bunch of stuff that happens'.  But what beautifully written, performed and intelligent stuff!  Even if you're turned off by the loosely structured narrative it's difficult to imagine not being seduced by the great soundtrack, which ranges ranging from the heartfelt to the dopey.  This is a dreamily smart watch, quietly brave watch, and one that slots neatly into the Coen's impressively consistent filmography.


Inside Llewyn Davis is on general release from 24 January

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