Sunday, July 20, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

2013, d. Joel and Ethan Coen - Netflix

The Coen Brothers are, without a doubt, two of the greatest filmmakers in cinema history.  I don't think anyone looking at their body of work could argue that.  Even when they're unsuccessful, they still manage to produce a film that engages and entertains differently than mostvother films.  For every outright critical and commercial success like Miller's Crossing, Fargo, or No Country For Old Men, there's a Hudsucker Proxy, a Ladykillers, or a Burn After Reading in their wake.  None of those latter three films are terrible movies, they're just not as tight, not as memorable, not as inviting or engrossing as the best of the best.  They can't all be cult smashes like The Big Lebowski.

Inside Llewyn Davis wasn't well reviewed, and despite my grand affection for the Coens, I let that sway me and keep me from the film in theatres.  It's a smaller Coen Bros. feature, with no big Clooney or Pitt-esque stars, nor does it explore broader scenery like True Grit or O' Brother Where Art Thou.  In the scale of their smaller work it's not as surprisingly good as A Serious Man, it's more in the vein of Barton Fink. 

Oscar Isaac is the titular character, an aspiring folk sing in the early 1960's.  He couch surfs and borrows money from friends and family and believes that his struggling is part of his art.  But he's also a sonofabitch with a flimsy filter for his emotions and true thoughts which get him in no end of trouble.  Llewyn is suffering from an aimlessness after the suicide of his recording partner, and there's a sense of loneliness he feels as a result.  He feels so abandoned, in his music that he thinks he's abandoned in life too, not realizing just how much support he's getting from his friends (even in the form of tough love from his sister).  He was abandoned in his music and music is his life.

The issues of abandonment leads Llewyn to go to rather extreme degrees to care for a friend's cat when it gets locked out of its home, a level of concern that seems well outside his character, it's pointed out.  At another point he's stranded in a car with no keys on the road to Chicago and he abandons the cat (a different cat, mind you) in the car, and it's obviously a painful decision for him, but he realizes he can't continue on with the cat in tow, that he has to accept he's solo now.  This is a revelation applied when he's given a offer to work as part of a group, which he turns down.

The revelation that he too is just as capable of leaving people behind (such as leaving a woman he impregnated to take care of the abortion on her own, only to learn that, two years later, it was never done) and that maybe he needs to change, take his sister's advice and become a resonsible adult. 

The final act concludes with Llewyn having the crap kicked out of him for his behaviour, in a scene that loops back in on the opening prologue, a curious trick from the Coens.  Is Llewyn stuck in a Groundhog's Day-like time loop?  No, it's literally just a deceptive opening cut.  But the intent is a curious one.  Is he really giving up on music or is it still  his job! as he tells the man in black in the alley?  And is the beat down accepted, even welcome compensation for his terrible behavior.  There are scenes of Llewn making good with his friends in that final act, paired right alongside scenes of him at his most prickishness.  Nobody can change their nature that quickly.

The songs of Inside Llewn Davis are an effective mish mash of dark, brooding folk, light kitsch ("Please, Mr. Kennedy", featuring Isaacs, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver  is such delightfully catchy pablum), and overearnest treacle that it spans folk in its broadest context.  It's almost as if the Coen's were staging the scene for a follow-up mocumentary that has moden hipsters and music nloggers discovering Llewyn Davis' music 50 years later and heralding its above-mediocre nature as a lost gem of folk, much in the Searching For Sugarman mold.

It's certainly not the Coen's best feature but it's still more than worthy viewing.