Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Coen Brothers' Haunting Folk Odyssey: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

In some ways, the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis is like the dark side of their earlier film, O Brother Where Art Thou? The settings are different -- Southern America during the Depression and New York's Greenwich Village in the early 60s -- but there's an emphasis on an odyssey in both, T-Bone Burnett did the music that fuels both films, and Coen favorite John Goodman acts as a nightmarish Cyclops figure in both.

But the tone is so very different...

In O Brother, the hero of the piece, played by the very handsome George Clooney, is a sweet but hapless prison escapee trying to find his way back home to his wife and kids. He becomes one of the Soggy Bottom Boys, a hastily assembled blues group, as part of his adventure, which furnishes one of the reasons for all the fabulous music in the film. But it's all in fun, even when Clooney's Everett McGill and his pals run into the Klan.

In contrast, Inside Llewyn Davis involves a gloomy wintery journey in and around New York City as a struggling folk musician tries to cadge a little money or a sofa to crash on from his circle of friends and acquaintances. For Llewyn, played by the very handsome Oscar Isaac, nothing has ever come easy, so it makes sense that his journey would look so dark and scary, contrasting sharply with the golden, sun-infused landscape Everett inhabits. Llewyn may be a folk musician, which carries with it the image of serene, fresh-faced people in sweaters swinging about magic dragons, but his life is unrelentingly harsh. He was part of a duo, but his singing partner jumped off the George Washington Bridge. He gets a gig now and then at the Gaslight Cafe, but that only earns a few bucks from the basket that he has to share with the likes of a dim, clean-cut soldier fresh off  the base or a gray-haired granny in a faded dress who looks like she took the express bus from Appalachia. He has no home. Not even a winter coat. And the people who will let him sleep on their couches or their floors include Jean (Carey Mulligan) who seems like a perfect angel when she sings with her equally cheery husband (an almost unrecognizable Justin Timberlake) but spews invective when faced with Llewyn, with whom she apparently slept at some point and now suspects of being the guy who got her pregnant. And then there's a kind professor and his wife, who are happy to feed and keep Llewyn, but he accidentally lets out their cat.

The cat thing is important. Why is Llewyn accompanied by a yellow tabby? Or two (or possibly three) yellow tabbies? As he moves around on foot, on the subway, on the bus, and then by car with a crazy person (the aforementioned John Goodman) being driven to Chicago through snow and rain and frequent stops for the man to shoot up in cruddy bathrooms, a cat is there. The one owned by the professor is named Ulysses. So there's that Odyssey thing again. He even sees a poster for the cat-and-dog odyssey movie The Incredible Journey. Is the cat his spirit animal? A metaphor for hope, so that when the cat is lost, so is any hope of a decent future for Llewyn? I don't know. But his name is associated with lions (in Welsh folk tradition and on the way-back-when Llywelyn coat of arms). So there's that, too.

I have a love-hate relationship with the Coen Brothers' films. And the ones I love are not necessarily the ones you might expect. I am quite fond of The Hudsucker Proxy, Raising Arizona and O Brother, as it happens, and not at all fond of Fargo or The Big Lebowski. This one lies somewhere in the middle ground occupied by The Man Who Wasn't There and Barton Fink, and, as a matter of fact, Inside Llewyn Davis reminds me of Barton Fink's nightmare world where a man tries to achieve artistic success but falls into Hell instead. Llewyn Davis is already tumbling downward when we meet him, and try as he might, he is not climbing out of his own particular Hell.

I've known enough would-be writers and would-be actors struggling to find purchase in the rocky worlds of publishing and theater that Llewyn's lack of success looks pretty familiar. That kind of melancholy gets hard to watch. It's even harder to sit through Llewyn Davis's uneasy, foreboding passages when they involve the cat. The film does have a few comic moments, but they, too lapse into darkness and cynicism. A novelty song about the space race that earns Llewyn a few bucks and a scene with Llewyn's sad sack manager and his receptionist are two of the lighter bits, but the first gets twisted when he signs away his rights to any royalties, while the second is really about how screwed Llewyn is as a musician when it comes to money.

All the heartache in Llewyn's sad odyssey is hard to shake once you've left Inside Llewyn David behind. Oscar Isaac's performance is beautiful, bruised and difficult, as sharply etched when he sits with a cat in his lap as when he sings. And make no mistake, he sings very well. He makes haunting folk songs like "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" and "The Death of Queen Jane" evocative and affecting. The soundtrack as a whole is amazing.

Inside Llewyn Davis won the Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival, it took Best Picture, Director, Screenplay and Actor awards from the National Society of Film Critics, and its website tells us it has appeared on more than 450 individual Top Ten lists for the year. But Oscar voters have almost completely overlooked it, offering nominations only for its cinematography and sound mixing. Maybe it's because it isn't as much fun as American Hustle or as splashy as Gravity or as socially important as 12 Years a Slave. Or maybe it's because, as Tim Teeman opines for The Daily Beast, Inside Llewyn Davis "isn't a film about conquering demons or surmounting impossible odds, it is a film about losing and losing more, the chipping away of character and of hope. It is about losing your dreams, not achieving them, life shrinking, hope diminishing, aspiration dissolving."

And that doesn't sound like an Oscar pic, does it?


  1. Beautiful review, Julie!

    I haven't seen it yet, but I am getting ready to.

    You didn't mention, "A Serious Man" as a Coen Bros favorite of yours. It's one of mine, and it's dark. "The God of the Bible as a cruel, jealous, and unforgiving force, as bad as Satan"?

    When they want dark, they get dark!

    And it's good, I think.

    Keep em coming! I love your movie reviews!


  2. Thanks, Allen. Good to see you're still around! I will be very interested to hear what you think after you see this one. I didn't see A Serious Man, so I don't have an opinion on that one. And my guilty secret is that I've never made it all the way through The Big Lebowski. I think 20 minutes is as far in as I've gotten, although I have seen a few later scenes if that's where I turned on the TV or something.