Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Inside Llewyn Davis

Written & Directed
Joel & Ethan Coen

     I have been highly anticipating the Coen brothers new film Inside Llewyn Davis since its premiere at last years Cannes Film Festival. The positivity coming from critics and cinephiles was intriguing, but it is a Coen brothers film, so it was more jealousy than excitement. I know that a Coen brothers film is an event of special importance. Filmmakers that do it right and do not hawk to the cinematic anemic or Hollywood stereotypes. Sitting in the theatre last weekend, I was overjoyed, satisfied and thoroughly appreciative that I have gotten to see their films and that they continue to never disappoint. Inside Llewyn Davis is a treasure. A piece of gold. And the great thing is, it really is not about much. Just the small things and hard realities of life, with a gracious dose of sardonic wit and dark humor. It is what the Coen's do best, but always a little different and always artfully entertaining.
    As with most of the Coen's films, it focuses on a loser or burnout or an unpopular character that is down on his luck. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is certainly that. The film starts with Llewyn singing at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village during the early 60s. Singing with a bluesy, soulful voice, he and his guitar belt out "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," a melancholic tune befitting of Llewyn's mood and place in life. Over the past few years he lost his singing partner, of the duo Timlin & Davis, and has struggled to make it as a solo artist. The mood, lighting and smoky look of the Gaslight is an intoxicating setting for our introduction to Llewyn. A man on the outs and after an altercation with a stranger in the alleyway, we witness Llewyn sleeping on couches, chasing and caring for a friends cat and searching for a successful break with his career. Honestly, Bruno Delbonnel, who lensed this film, has nailed the lighting down so well that it was overwhelming at how beautiful, hazy and moody the look this film had. Much like those covers of early Bob Dylan albums with a somewhat faded look.
     The film was inspired by Dave Von Ronk's memoir "The Mayor of MacDougal Street." The pastiche is so accurate and intoxicating. The haircuts, clothing, cars and overall attitudes are exact. The singing, and Oscar Isaac did all of his own singing and playing, is dead on. That sweetness of bluegrass, the achiness of country and the soul of the blues. The songs that Llewyn Davis is singing are just ahead of the time. He is more soulful and personal, where the other music of the folk scene was happy and satisfying. Easy going, but relevant. Llewyn's melancholic journey is one of a human being that is at, or in, the wrong place at the wrong time. A little too soon and not good enough. The thing about the Coen's character developments is that you always witness that life is not full of just winners, but plenty of losers. The one's that do not get the girl at the end or the big promotion. The one's that attempt, but do not succeed. That is the joy, even if that is mean, of their films. A place where not much happens, but what does happen is hilarious and sad, but not without an honest appraisal of probably someone you should not feel sad for.
     One thing I truly admire about the Coen's is their ability to imbue humor without it feeling forced or outside of the story. Moments that just work with the right dialogue, actors and camera work. The comedy, which they are brilliant at writing, fits every nook and crack with that "laughing quietly at myself" satisfaction. Real humor. Just, if you have not seen the film yet, wait until you see the road trip to Chicago, for one example, and you will know what I mean.
     Another thing is, much as with their depression era comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?, that the music is a smooth, breathing element that seems like an effortless continuation of every scene and important aspect of growing the story. The folk music is just perfect here and working with T. Bone Burnett is a huge plus. Marcus Mumford, from Mumford &Sons, also worked on the music and his earthy, folky sound fits accurately to the time and scene. Not to spoil much of the ending, but the two songs that Llewyn plays, one in Chicago and one with his ill father, are poignant and some of the most powerful stuff the Coen's have ever done.
    Throughout the film Llewyn is a mess. He is mean, ungrateful and has little going for him. He has an agent that wants little to do with him and an ex-girlfriend who hates him with a fiery passion. The ex, Jean (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake) are kind, well, at least Jim is, to allow Llewyn to crash on their couch more than a few times over the course of the film, which is roughly about a week. Jean is pregnant and it is Llewyn's baby. She curses him out and berates him continuously. Shouts obscenities at him in public and really sets in the fact that Llewyn does not think much about the future and does not have a plan. Mulligan, even though she does not have many scenes, is fantastic. She has the look and the vitriolic hate down solid and concretely. Thinking of that, most of the supporting actors only have but a few scenes. Oscar Isaac is in every scene of the whole film. The reunion of the Coen's with John Goodman, who plays a drug-addicted jazz musician named Roland, who Llewyn meets when he travels to Chicago to meet with music producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) for one last shot at a career, is pure glory and happiness. Goodman is a knockout, as expected, and delivers every line with a grunted physicality that is so funny and right.
     I cannot say enough about how amazing Oscar Isaac is as Llewyn Davis. The mood, the bursts of anger with his sister in Queens and the academic friends on the Upper West Side, and that melancholic self sadness that seeps through every corner of his face is perfect. Isaac, who usually is a supporting character, really is a knockout in the film. Not once did I not believe he was this emotionally and professionally struggling artist who just could not catch a break. Many of the reasons he could not catch break this funk is from his own accord. Isaac is brilliant. So satisfying to see him shine and get the attention he deserves for how talented of an actor he is and playing in the role of his career. And the real singing and playing only adds to the immense appreciation. But that is the thing about the Coen's. They are the best filmmakers at casting the right people for the right roles. Look at A Serious Man with Michael Stuhlbarg, Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski and John Turturro in Barton Fink, just to name a few. Those films would not be the same without those actors in those roles, and the Coen's are true talents at casting the right people.
     The production design, costumes, music and really fantastic, gorgeous cinematography from Bruno Delbonnel, not only precisely capture the 60s folk-music scene of Greenwich Village, but add to the delicate touch that makes Inside Llewyn Davis even more of a perfect film. Delbonnel's lighting during the music scenes with Llewyn are enough to put a smile on any film lover. Also, supporting turns from Adam Driver, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Stark Sands and Garret Hedlund really add great humor and depth to this film. And not to mention a cat that is a damn good actor.
     The Coen's never disappoint and if they do, it is not by a lot. Inside Llewyn Davis continues a common theme of losers not making it. Of people that just cannot get over the hump or dig themselves a hole that is almost impossible to get out of. The outsiders trying to get in, but never really succeeding. They also have captured a moment in time with such precision and history. Msic that is excellent and humor that fits so perfectly. The Coen's never fall into Hollywood narrative contraptions and do what they want to do. They are brilliant storytellers and some of the best directors in the history of film. I do not feel like I really know if there was some deeper meaning with Inside Llewyn Davis and frankly, I do not care. This is just a perfect film from perfect directors. Oscar Isaac is absolutely fantastic, delivering lines like a mad genius. They know how to use and gather all the elements together to create something artful and entertaining. They do not make bad films and this one is one of their best, and one of the best of 2013. I am glad we have films like this out there and hope they never stop.

Photo credit by IMDB.

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