Thursday 30 January 2014

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Year: 2013 (U.K. Release 2014)
Directors: The Coen Brothers
Screenplay: The Coen Brothers
Starring: Oscar Isaac

Synopsis is here:

Ask me to describe the Coen brothers and the first word that comes to mind is American.  For 30 years, their particular brand of storytelling has an uncanny knack of detailing small time Americana and personage in such a way that bleeds authenticity. The most popular example for many is of course Fargo, which has often been summed up with the now iconic “funny looking” sequence. It’s the kind of “funny because it feels real” moment that often appears in the brothers films, grounding the film no matter what hysteria occurs around the characters.

The second word would have to be moralists. As explained exquisitely by Tasha Robinson in a recent article of The Dissolve, the brothers seem to have their own rules about them that their hapless characters are fools to break. One of the reasons people appear to enjoy the Coens is down to the knowledge that no matter how despicable the likes of Jerry Lundegaard or Barton Fink can be, there will be comeuppance and it will be severe.

On the surface; Inside Llewyn Davis is no different from other Coen accounts, but there’s one ingredient that separates it: isolation.

I found Inside Llewyn Davis to be the Coen’s loneliest feature, one which has a character whose dismissal of moral high grounds set by the Coen’s universe, has landed him in a cold, bleak and penniless urban purgatory. Even those who know Llewyn aren’t really friends, more acquaintances that he’s allowed to use their couch for a couple of days.

Filmed in a near washed out grey, in an alien looking New York, some of Llewyn’s misdeeds are mentioned in hushed tones in tiny coffee shops, while past grief is hinted at but left to interpretation. A tragedy is mentioned involving Llewyn’s ex singing partner and there’s an underlying (and unsurprising) feeling that Llewyn’s ego may have played a part in it. This is not to say that the pain he brings to his folk music is crocodile tears, far from it.  But the emotion he feels while he strums his guitar almost seems to play into the circular nature of the narrative; an endless ring of distress with only his own thoughts for comfort. They bring little.

This odyssey of the common man lends itself a lot to the brother’s 1991 acclaimed black comedy Barton Fink. Llewyn, like Barton, believes that his work is made to touch the inner essence, yet he spites/screws himself when faced with the idea of commerce.  Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn with impeccable timing, whether on the guitar or sniping acquaintance. Both Llewyn and Barton are non-conformists with the uncanny ability to self sabotage themselves, even when they finally reach any sense of self realisation.

I found myself more struck by Inside Llewyn Davis more than expected. I expect great craftsmanship from the brothers and their crew, but despite the typical, cynical nature of the piece I found the film to have a yearning with it that is often considered missing in the Coen’s pieces. And like how so many people have mentioned; it’s obviously something to do with the cat and what a viewer believes it represents.   

After watching Inside Llewyn Davis, I found myself in three different conversations about the Coens. Within those conversations I’ve heard them being considered pretentious or that they lack depth. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel like that as their films often feels like they’re mocking their characters, running them within a booby trapped hamster wheel. Strangely, I don’t find them any more pretentious then the characters of George Lucas. Both work around worlds of exact good and evil and while you could say the Coen’s planet is a little more skewed, the forces of nature seem to be just as adequate.   

Inside Llewyn Davis expresses that Llewyn is nearly always master of his fate, but it is one he himself sabotages. The problem is in this world the consequences hold no scrutiny. It’s no surprise that people are running cold on the Coens, when they’ve shaped their selfish characters and cold worldview so well, how can you be shocked? But there is something about how the folk song soars and how much Llewyn needs to keep hold of that damn cat that belies the film’s hidden heart.