Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (ST)

Big Apple Blues 

As a lonesome musician strums his guitar in a smoky bar, hollering lyrics that speak of love and loss, the Coen brothers’ latest production strikes the perfect balance between art-house symbolism and popular entertainment.
Within this starkly melancholic meditation on the sorrow of broken ambition, one resounding feature inspires the viewer’s hope: folk, the music of the people, lives on. The timeless melodies of Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel et al speak eternal truths which do not diminish with age. Indeed, their message becomes more potent in the golden shroud of posterity. Joel and Ethan, I salute you; not least for offering this surfeit of sensual pleasures to humble cinema-goers like myself.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a no-good wastrel. His time in the fashionable haunts of Greenwich Village is spent hopping between the sofas of casual acquaintances whilst he hopelessly endeavours to make a living from his music. Poverty and tragedy haunt his everyday world as the harsh realities of modern living begin to bite. Along his parade of the beaten New York streets, this reluctant protagonist encounters a runaway cat, a heroine addicted big-shot and the hostility of his friend Jean (Carey Mulligan).

True to form, the makers of True Grit, Fargo and Raising Arizona have created a bittersweet elegy to one of life’s helpless losers. Their mischievously subtle script snakes from one personal disaster to the next, leaving little respite from the misery other than some beautiful acoustic tunes.

Without being stylized as an orthodox musical, the film positions its soundtrack at its core and uses the lyrics to contextualize various individual scenes. In effect, the two complimentary elements are inseparable components of the overall piece. Some of Inside Llewyn Davis’ best moments stem from sequences based entirely on the performance of a track, the highlight of which being the hero's impromptu audition in front of an inscrutable club owner.

Although littered with plenty of talented character actors, the camera is entirely centred on Oscar Isaac in his breakthrough role. Not only does he carry the story with a powerhouse performance but he also has the vocal skill to look – and more importantly sound- like a professional singer. If, like me, folk is a genre that tickles your fancy, then these phonic tones will leave you spellbound.

Although varying in some respects from their usual farcical style, the Coen brothers have still included many of their signature features. Inevitably it is John Goodman, playing a wily loud-mouth, which leaves the deepest impression of these artistic tropes. Whether it is in The Big Lebowski or Barton Fink, Goodman is an irrepressible force when given the right lines.

Depending on your sympathies for folk music or the esteemed Coen siblings, Inside Llewyn Davis is either an overly idiosyncratic homage to Dylan or a distinguished recreation of a cultural movement in its prime. I favour the latter.


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