Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2014, Joel & Ethan Coen)

Joel and Ethan Coen have always been accused of lording it over their characters with a disdained manner, jeering at their shortfalls and downwardly spiralling lives thanks often to their creation's common stupidity. Whereas their plots do often deal with failure, this critic doesn't share such an opinion and it certainly doesn't apply to their Inside Llewyn Davis that follows the daily trials of a talented (yet sour) New York folk singer in the cruel pursuit of success. The film feels like a swan song thanks to the dedicated, morose central performance of Oscar Isaac as Llewyn, and its steely,withered photography matches the harshness given and received by its titular anti-hero. In fact, and this depends entirely how you want to look at it, the film is actually one of hope as with history on its side we know that the folk boom is just around the corner in 1961. All out of hope, can Llewyn continue the good fight and not compromise with this musical shift so near? Perhaps settle on mediocrity, or a more morbid fate hinted at throughout.

History is of course on our side in this case and not on Llewyn's, which is what makes most of the film such a gruelling experience as what little resilience on his face at the start is wiped off through constant hardship. Like Lebowski's 'The Dude' we have another man out of step with his time - the product of another era. Here however, unlike 'The Dude', Llewyn is a step ahead of the game in the Universe's grand plan yet is perceived by the music business as dated; as a producer says coldly after one of Llewyn's heartfelt renditions, "I don't see any money in it".

Llewyn is a prickly character and it can be argued is responsible for much of his detriment, whether that be in his personal or professional life. Though within this tale and with much thanks to Isaac's complete understanding of his character he is also a sympathetic man; he takes a beating for heckling another act without much complaint, receives a bombardment of vitriol from a past lover, Jean (Carey Mulligan), because on his face you can see he agrees with her, and upon upsetting a dinner party hosted by a couple who've been his biggest supporters, realises he overstepped the mark and does indeed apologise later. His caring for a neighbour's cat which he managed to get locked out is also endearing as well as redeeming and reminds of the touching relationship between man and dog in Vittorio De Sica's Umberto D. (1952). Here is a man who will continue to apologise his entire life because he will continue to upset people - why? Because he cannot and will not change, though this is softened by his acceptance of what an"asshole" he can be. 

With the 60s in its infancy, still blooming and with these players inside the eye of the storm and without a removed perception of this developing counter culture, Llewyn is rebelling against the bourgeoisie (despite resting on it when he really needs a sofa) and either stifles or enriches himself because he refuses to dilute or add others to his act. This is a film about integrity but not only that one about loss and grief too.

Bruno Delbonnel's photography brutally and yet beautifully captures the unforgiving winter, the smoke filled bars where the folk acts play - most famously The Gaslight. You're able to feel these places, taking and placing you in the comfort of the front row or in the blistering cold as Llewyn embarks on a surreal-tinged road trip to Chicago, accompanied by a near mute Garrett Hedland and a Jazz informed John Goodman. The look captured by the Coens and Delbonnel is almost anaemic, with the image seemingly drained of life to match Llewyn's doleful gaze; a dolefulness explained by the suicide of his musical partner and friend, Mike. Much is explained in this loss, this man who wasn't there hangs over the film and torments Llewyn who struggles to carry on alone.

It can be argued that since 2007's No Country For Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen began a new elegiac chapter to their career that seems natural given as the duo are approaching their sixties; even the rather spritely Burn After Reading dealt with marital breakdown and midlife crises amidst its broad strokes. This has continued through their True Grit which also dealt with a loss of innocence and the passing of time, a touching story under its steely heroine. With their latest feeling like a funeral procession of sorts despite its sporadic moments of hilarity and a soulful soundtrack that will surely go on to rival even O' Brother Where Art Thou?

A typical Coen protagonist tends to be one of pretension, or one who misjudges their station. They also tend to be passive, or at least ignorant to the consequences of their own actions. Inside Llewyn Davis presents us with another man who gets whipped by fate and boxed by life due to his unfortunate action, or lack of it. It presents us with questions and avenues of which Llewyn could head but leaves us to answer them for ourselves in the same way the similarly pitched companion piece A Serious Man did. 

It's 1961 and the situation in Vietnam is escalating, Bob Dylan is about to burst the folk scene open, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy not too far off in the distance; will America ever get over that loss? Will Llewyn ever get over his? For a man who can't seem to think ahead by barely a day no one can see what's actually around the corner. So whether Llewyn reenlists as a seaman, continues his plight as a musician (untainted or not), or follows a similar fate to his partner Mike, we're left to ponder. Life's unknowable nature is at once petrifying and yet in its infinite possibility should be more exciting and hopeful than we ever give it credit for, the cynic in us so often wins. If only we could view our own lives like we view Llewyn Davis's existence, a fantasy if there ever was one.

Head over to Kubrick on the Guillotine for part one, two, and three of my Coen Brothers career retrospective.

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