Inside Llewyn Davis ★★★★½

The Coen brothers have been aging like wine. They are still the same dudes that made Blood Simple all those 3 decades ago, but they just keep learning and learning. Inside Llewyn Davis is another high point in a seemingly effortless career. It is one of their more singular and restrained works, which will attract the crowd that also loved No Country for Old Men, whilst still having the doomed abstract mental spiral of Barton Fink. Coen films often exist in these harsh and disorientating, yet slightly comical and ironic worlds. In some films, the characters fit right into that world. In others, they feel so lonely and disconnected from the madness or empty void around them, and are made to suffer. This is the latter.

Inside Llewyn Davis's key joy is in its technical sparseness. The Delbonnel cinematography was my favourite thing about the film, I just wanted to swim in it and loved how it felt like a brisk walk on a cool, dewy morning. I almost cried at the beauty when the road scene shifted to that black, red and white restaurant.

The characters are also delighfully pitched. Coen characters often remind you of someone, but in this film every single character was someone you know. I liked every single character in this film, you can tell the directors just loved every single one of them in their own way. It's their skill which separates them from a lot of their contemporaries, except maybe Linklater. Even Mulligan's Jean in a Woody Allen film would be yet another bitch, but here she breathes and really has something worth saying.

I liked how the trip outside Greenwich Village (i.e. the trip to Chicago) was almost like another planet. Llewyn does not belong anywhere else. He belongs in a place and a time. Like the cat belonging in an apartment, he belongs somewhere. And that time and place is miraculous, living and breathing period rarely done better elsewhere. It's a time like any other, where everyone is a few years behind the curve. To Llewyn, its all very cringe worthy and tedious and samey, but its a refreshing nostalgia piece for the audience.

I enjoyed the circular nature of the film. I was waiting for the film to end in the same place it began, with his final career song at Gaslight. It surprised me though by ending even more intensely similar to its beginning, hoodwinking the audience with the start as a chronological ending. I was also waiting for Bob Dylan to pop up at the end, so that was a lovely beautiful touch.

Oscar Isaac is one of those actors who gets around in bit parts. His impressive performance as Jose Ramos Horta in Balibo was the only previous time he had really left an impression. This was a big career moment, a central role in a Coen film, and he delivered to the extent you cant imagine anyone else playing the role. Carey Mulligan is slowly evolving into the dark horse actress of her generation (I started to feel goosebumps as she walked to the microphone, given her previous role in Shame). I almost punched in the air when F. Murray Abraham popped up, especially given he was commenting on music! It is almost the opposite of Salieri, a joke for the cinematic crowd. Justin Timberlake also plays the notes of his character very well, and I liked how Goodman's bag of hot air happened to be a jazz player. Good avenue to use his filling-up- silence talents.

Lastly, I've never seen a film that made me want to have a cat, until now. So well done on that account. The Llewyn-Cat connection was really cute. Whilst in Breakfast at Tiffanys I was like "sorry Audrey, fuck you" when she deserted the cat, here it just was natural.

This film reminded me of a few of their other films. Firstly, the odyssey aspects of the story kept popping up, reminding me of O Brother Where Art Thou. The entire Chicago sequence (and later realisation of the Ulysses cat 'incredible journey') felt like his 'loser' cant-take-this-anymore odyssey of realisation (O Loser Where Art Thou). There was that character focus on an isolated, underappreciated kind-of-an-asshole artist like Barton Fink. And it is their most restrained film since No Country for Old Men (usually with them, the more restrained the better). Additionally, like A Serious Man and even Fargo, it seems to be a 'childhood' film for them, evocative of a time when they were children. I expect this film will do similarly at the box office and at the Oscars to A Serious Man, but it will probably have a more enduring presence like Barton Fink.

So, I have got this far without mentioning the music. As a lover of Treme (which also has a flawed musician named Davis), I also sensed some inspiration from that direction. I appreciated that Isaac brought his own musical talent to this film, it feels more collaborative in that way as a work. As a lover of music, in all its forms, stories about struggling musicians on the precipice of success or failure really connect with me. I liked that he and Jean both had a point. He is a 'loser', a directionless bed-hopper with no tomorrow, but she kind of is as well. We all are, all winners and losers in our own way. Some can live the hard life easier than others. As always, happiness is not pursued, it is incidental, it is only achieved by not being the direct focus. Happiness is in a hobby, or caring about someone more than yourself. But for Llewyn, the music starts to feel like a job and the job starts to stagnate and he might as well just get it over with and follow the pursuit of 'existing' like every other sucker. Timing is everything. So as Bob Dylan takes centre stage, naturally Llewyn feels a punch in the guts. That is opportunity passing you by sucker. History waits for no one. No one will remember you.

But we will Llewyn, we (the audience) will never forget you.

Inside Llewyn Davis is an above-average Coen. I need to see it again to have a clear idea about its longevity, but for now I'd have it about equal with A Serious Man and maybe Barton Fink, its in my top several Coen films.

Ruth liked these reviews

All