Over the last couple of decades, Joel and Ethan Coen have established a resume to match almost anyone working in film. Their films, several of which are legitimate masterpieces, have been nominated for 33 Academy Awards with 4 wins (including fourteen nominations for the brothers themselves), and eight Palme d’Or nominations at Cannes (with one win for Barton Fink which was unanimously chosen for the festival’s highest honor in 1991). Their newest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, took home the festival’s second award, the Grand Prix, and is considered by many to be one of their finest films. It’s hard to think of a better duo. The only other sibling pairs rolling around on the top of my head are the Wachowskis, Farrellys and the Wayans. Not to mention Dickie Elkund and Micky Ward, or Terry Malloy and Charley “the Gent”, or all the Corleones. (Okay, okay this isn’t relevant. But those are some of my favorite movies. And On the Waterfront doesn’t get enough love).
The film stars Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk singer with a failing album in 1961 New York City. The film meets Llewyn as he sets out as a solo act after his partner Mike “threw himself off the George Washington Bridge.” Llewyn refuses to work in another duo, and moves from gig to gig, couch surfing along the way and burning through the list of people willing to accommodate his antics. For much of the film Llewyn comes off as apathetic, obnoxious and fairy manipulative. The filmmakers don’t go out of their way to position the character in a charming or warm light. Ironically he literally saves a cat in the beginning of the film but is doesn’t feel like a prototypical “save the cat” moment, as in “the hero saves the cat letting us know he’s the good guy” moment.
While the offstage Llewyn oscillates between stubborn and awkward, his onstage persona and performance rescues the character from exasperation, both for him and for the audience watching his interactions. When he is playing, the mood of the entire movie shifts from it’s usual somber and mournful to one of hope and almost joy. The film has some of the best music and performances I’ve seen since Walk the Line, (admittedly I don’t watch many movies based in music) and Isaac is a perfect fit in the movie. The performances are shot in a way that showcase not only the talent of those on-screen but what the music means for the characters.
In an early scene Jean (Carey Mulligan), Jim (Justin Timberlake), and Troy (Stark Sands) perform together at the smoke-filled Gaslight Cafe where the characters perform regularly. The frame flips back and forth between the trio and Llewyn watching them, starting with a long shot of Llewyn slouched over in his chair followed by the trio on stage. We gradually move back and forth, pressing into the characters, moving into a close up of Llewyn throughout the song. At the same time, we move closer and closer to the trio, but Jim and Troy are left out as we focus instead on Jean, lit overhead with the spotlight and appearing angelic as she sings. We see her as Llewyn sees her, and are drawn into the pair. Soon after the performance the two argue, which mostly consists of Jean calling Llewyn a “complete shit” and suggesting that he wear double condoms so no one would be forced to bear his children. But when the music is playing, we momentarily forget these arguments, or at least their stakes in the film, and can almost forget about the problems we have with our central character. Later Llewyn plays for producer in Chicago, hoping to be signed to a record deal. Like in the Gaslight Cafe, we gradually move closer and closer to the performer, but in this scene we don’t start in a tight long shot but instead from a distance. As he begins, the camera refuses to move into Llewyn, highlighting the coldness of the producer and his low expectations for the folk singer. Eventually, we slowly roll towards Llewyn. There is an unusually long pause before the shot breaks and we are treated to the producer’s reaction. Again we start from far off and roll slowly in, over Llewyn’s shoulder. Waiting to see the producer’s reaction is torturous as we have already watched Llewyn fail consistently, and have seen the joy music brings the character.
In the end, Llewyn is a flawed character, unwilling to compromise. While the ideal of an artist “unwilling to compromise their art” tends to conjure up inspirational thoughts brimming with envy, that doesn’t really apply to Llewyn. When we meet him he is stubborn to a fault, and although he changes throughout the movie, he ends up making many of the same mistakes, and paying for mistakes of his past. He chooses the easy options, like abandoning a cat, making quick cash on a record instead of collecting royalties, not stopping in Akron to visit someone from his past, and having his sister throw away a box of things he ends up later needing. But through this I was still rooting for him. I didn’t want him to stop performing, partly because of his talent, and partly because of his callousness and crassness off stage. He’s not a person you fall in love with but the Coen’s don’t deal with those characters, they make us approach characters like we would approach a person in the real world.
This movie is a perfect showcase for the Coen brothers to display their talents. They are experts at establishing mood. The camera work and cinematography is excellent, not only in the music scenes but throughout. Early in the movie we watch Llewyn stare at Troy’s back as he walks away and out of the movie. Troy, who has a solid future in music, walks into the screen and away from Llewyn. Llewyn stands in the cold in his T-shirt, watching Troy walk to the success he can’t find. We often see Llewyn on a similar street, walking towards us (the opposite direction Troy was walking) with guitar in tow, giving a foil for Troy’s prospects. Troy is just one of the quirky characters in the film. The Coen brothers are known for their unusual characters including the motel clerk and gas station cashier in No Country for Old Men, John Goodman in any of his roles with them (including in this movie as Roland Turner), and many of the characters in Fargo. They add to the overall feeling of the films and are one of their trademarks.
As the movie rolled and I worked my way to the bottom of my popcorn bag, my overwhelming reaction was that I could watch this movie dozens of times and pick up on things with each view. There appears to be a great deal of underlying symbolism that I didn’t pick up on first viewing that a second watch might help flesh out. I imagine a more experienced film critic would crack into the movie and provide a great analysis of the film’s shots and tones (and probably make fun of my analyses here). For example, I wasn’t entirely sure of the significance of the orange tabby cat in the film which Llewyn sees several times in different situations. There are possibly four cats in the film which Llewyn cares for, abandons, accidentally injures, and accidentally kidnaps. The name of the final incarnation of the cat, Ulysses, may suggest the meaning behind the cat and may be related to the James Joyce book and to O, Brother Where Art Thou?. Also why does Llewyn say “au revoir” at the end of the film to an exiting character? Why not just “goodbye”? I might be forgetting a reference within the film but it felt like an external reference since the french sign off was so out-of-place. The cyclical nature of the film was also interesting. Either way, like most Coen brothers films, Inside Llewyn Davis, deserves multiple views for proper unpacking. Thinking about Llewyn and his struggles to achieve in his craft draws many parallels to the Coens themselves. The pair have been able to be both uncompromising and hugely successful, only one of which Llewyn is afforded. Their partnership also parallels Llewyn’s newfound solo career and refusal to work with anyone after Mike. I’d like to think of this as a reflection of the brothers’ view of their partnership.
Where to see it: It is not in theaters in many places, which is fine. It doesn’t matter where you watch this one.
If you want to read an amazing review of the film, check out Oh! That Film Blog, which gives a great analysis.
Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 94%
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