Friday, December 6, 2013


It feels like it has always existed, just waiting to be brought into being. Inside Llewyn Davis casts a spell of tone and mood like the best folk songs. It’s plaintive melancholy, a sustained sense of a soul laid bare before our eyes, introspective and yearning. Writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen are masters of films – from Blood Simple and Fargo to Raising Arizona and A Serious Man – that suggest as much as they show, creating convincing worlds much like our own, richly populated with eccentric individuals and a sly determinism. Their characters want better lives and are frustrated when they come up short. It makes notes of triumph all the sweeter, but Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk singer in 1961 New York City, is rubbing up against the end of his rope. Triumph, for him, seems perpetually out of reach. In this film we watch him circle around the city, begging a night’s sleep on a variety of friends’ couches. His music career is going nowhere fast, but his big break is right there, ever so slightly out of his reach.

We know Llewyn Davis is talented, but we also are quickly aware of his difficulties. The opening of the film is a sequence set in a small club, Llewyn softly plucking his guitar as his voice, soft and strong, wafts out over the audience. It’s hushed. They’re rapt. We see a glimmer of satisfaction on his face. After the performance, he heads out to the back alley where he’s promptly confronted by an angry man who punches him in the face a couple times, walking away as Llewyn sits on the ground, hurting. In this opening, we have the film in miniature. It’s a film focused on Llewyn’s quietly ecstatic musical satisfaction, and the pain he’s constantly receiving. He’s a man for whom music and pain are attracted to him and created by him. They’re as self-inflicted as they are God-given. It might not sound like it, but there’s warmth to the Coens’ approach here. Perceptive without judging, the film is a wise and compassionate look inside this man’s emotional states and drives.

He’s capable of great cruelty – a scene in which he heckles an older woman had me wincing – and yet he’s so precisely nuanced a frustrated artistic type that it’s easy to feel for him as he tries to navigate a path to the future that grows murkier the harder to tries to get there. I empathized with him to an almost painful extent; it filled my heart even as it faintly ached. He stubbornly works to get ahead. It’s a frustratingly circular path he’s on – performing in clubs, lucking into some studio work for which he short-sightedly signs away the rights to royalties, and talking to his manager (Jerry Grayson) who looks at him with sad eyes while avoiding the inevitable “no” answer to the question of how much he’s earned from a record well into the process of flopping. Llewyn is struggling and getting seemingly nowhere. And yet he’ll go on. It’s scary to go on, but it’s even scarier not to. In the haunting lyrics of the folk song he sings that bookends the film, “Wouldn’t mind the hanging / But the laying in the grave so long.”

Stubbornness: it’s the very thing keeping him going and a key part of what’s holding him back. He wants to succeed on his own terms, scrambling to come back after being thrown by unforeseen circumstances that have occurred before the film has even begun. Two losses define him: one a girl he loved who has moved to Akron nearly two years prior, the other his music partner who sometime in the recent past forcibly made their duo a solo act. We never meet these people, but we feel their absence acutely. Oscar Isaac, playing Llewyn, ably communicates the resonant emotional wounds that have rattled him, and the combination of talent and arrogance that drives him to continue pursuing folk music success. It’s an interior performance that lets the inner gears turn, expressed outward through wry speech and moving music. Isaac, doing his own singing and guitar playing, represents the Coen’s typical ability to cast the exact right person in each and every role.

This is a fascinating character study, bolstered by a universally strong ensemble. It finds its characters distinct and fully formed, situated wholly and completely in casually perfect costume and production design. Each person who arrives on the scene – there for a moment or two never to return, unless, of course, they do – contributes immeasurably to the richness and depth of the world the Coens create. We meet a musical couple (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake) who are alternately antagonistic and accommodating, as well as Llewyn’s patience-strained sister (Jeanine Serralles). As Llewyn navigates narrow halls to friends’ apartments pinned and pinched in corridors that terminate in tiny corners or heading out into the world that opens up with snowy sidewalks and slippery highways, smoky stages and creaky roadside cafes, he meets all manner of strangers. There’s an eerily polite solider moonlighting as a singer (Stark Sands), a sickly old grump (John Goodman) and his driver (Garrett Hedlund), a kind older couple (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), a struggling solo act doing backup singing on novelty records (Adam Driver), and an intimidating record executive (F. Murray Abraham).

In typical Coen fashion, the dialogue is so dry it crackles. Consider the following exchange in which Llewyn is told by his manager’s secretary (Sylvia Kauders) that the old man is out of the office attending yet another funeral. Why? “He likes people.” Llewyn replies, “Fewer and fewer.” The film moves from memorable moment to memorable moment, a fascinating period piece odyssey with not a single line or gesture out of place. It manages to view, with Bruno Delbonnel’s exquisite cinematography, the past through almost-hazy mists of time without glorifying or condescending to the context or circumstances. Its imagery is at once soft and sharp, as if emerging from a timeless place with startling immediacy, powerfully direct, as piercing and singular as anything the Coen brothers have brought us. Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterful character study and a wondrous and precise evocation of time, place, and music. As the film’s final sequence unspools, I gasped at its detail as my heart swelled, at once broken and full. The spell the movie casts in the moment lingers, stuck circling in my mind like a great old melody that’s always been there, deep and true, ready to stay.

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