Saturday, 1 February 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (SP)

In an interview with Sight and Sound magazine, Ethan Coen described the titular protagonist of their latest film Inside Llewyn Davis as being on ‘a hamster wheel’, ever moving but always ending up in the same place. A hamster in a cage is also an apt metaphor for the way Ethan and his brother Joel – known of course as the collective filmmaking force the Coen Brothers – treat characters in their films. They’re like the cruel schoolchild who gleefully teases and torches his pet, subjecting it to ever increasing pains before leaving exhausted and bemused.

Llewyn’s (Oscar Isaac) travails involve the many setbacks that greet him in his futile attempts to become a recognised folk musician. Having quit his job in the merchant navy, Llewyn is without a home in New York’s Greenwhich village, alternately sleeping on the couches of the few friends he has and those willing to put up with him. The little money he makes is earned performing songs from his unsuccessful album ‘Inside Lleywn Davis’ at the Gaslight Cafe, and his woes mount up over the week that the film takes place in.

The brothers have conceived the pre-Bob Dylan world of the Greenwhich village folk scene in an understated, melancholic mood, with colour having been drained from the frame and black, white and greys populating the image. Such simplicity is reflected in the songs themselves, composed as they are from the bare elements of a singer and his guitar.  

These performances - sometimes on stage, sometimes to pass the time, sometimes unwillingly – are what structures the film, and have been weaved into the plot in a manner akin to the genre of the musical. And, like most musicals, the plot itself is uneventful, with the most sustained tension evoked in Llewyn’s attempts to bring home safely the cat of one the friend’s he sleeps round. We later discover that this cat is called ‘Ulysees’, an allusion which - along with several other references to journeying – invites us to consider the odyssey Llewyn is himself enduring. That Llewyn must decide to what extent to continue to look after the cat is also given extra weight upon the discovery of a particular revelation learned.

As the title suggests, we’re with Llewyn in pretty much every frame of the film, and Oscar Isaac and the Coens do a good job of making us route for him despite the less appealing attributes he sometimes exhibits. He is, for all his flaws, a loveable screw-up; or as his ‘friend’ Jean (played by the typically excellent Carey Mulligan) dubs him, ‘King Midas’ idiot brother’, turning everything he touches into shit. Isaac’s singing is especially affective, impressive enough to make us believe in Llewyn’s talent, and passionate enough to give voice to the character’s frustrated interior that is otherwise only inconspicuously evoked. And, perhaps most importantly of all, beautiful to listen to.

All the traits we’ve come to expect from a Coen Brothers film are present: grotesque characters, black humour, excellent script, artful direction, and John Goodman playing another variation of John Goodman (this time a repulsive, self-satisfied jazz musician). Goodman’s performance is somewhat jarring and the film takes a turn for the strange at this point, but does add another layer to a film that is difficult to pin down.

Though aside from the various oblique thematic hints, more than anything else Inside Llewyn Davis is about the difficulty of making it as an artist. In fact, the very notion of ‘making it’ is itself questioned; is an artist one who makes beautiful music from the depths of their sole, or one who is able to make a living from it? Whichever way you look at it, the Coen brothers themselves – however cruelly they may treat their artist-protagonists - have over the years established themselves as greatly accomplished artists, and their latest effort is yet another excellent addition to their ever growing canon. 


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