O Brother, What is This?
Dark tale is a departure for the Coen brothers
By Tim Pompey 01/02/2014
Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman
Rated R for language including some sexual references
The Coen brothers are nothing if not diverse. Think of successful films (Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, offbeat films (The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona), downright weird ones (Hudsucker Proxy and Barton Fink). And then their latest offering: Inside Llewyn Davis. What’s the draw here? The history of folk music in Greenwich Village? An interest in urban photography? Or maybe it’s just an inside joke on those who claim they really know the Coen brothers.
Let’s start by subtitling this film “A really bad week in the life of Llewyn Davis.” It’s winter, 1961 and Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk singer in Greenwich Village, is couch surfing. He’s broke, mostly out of work, and has a knack for putting his foot in his mouth whenever anyone tries to help him.
What’s worse, he discovers that his friend’s wife, Jean (Carey Mulligan), is pregnant. Maybe it’s his. Maybe it’s not. But at the very least, the possibility exists and she’s pissed — at herself and at him.
Davis is chasing a career that doesn’t seem interested in what he has to offer. A reasonably good singer with a passion for his art, he can’t muster enough momentum to get out of the shoot. The movie follows his foibles as he chases his dream from New York to Chicago and back. It’s all summed up aptly in the apathetic response he gets from noted Chicago club owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham).
Hoping for a cheerful ending? Don’t expect one here. The Coen brothers don’t give an inch. Rather, they accentuate Davis’ plight with a shadowed backdrop that seems to bounce back and forth between harsh spotlights, empty stretches of road and icebound highways.
Did you ever think the Coens could be this serious? Usually, they thrive on their sharp sense of humor. While some of that does pop up, the funny in this film is much more subtle and cynical. The really wicked jokes come from Roland Turner (John Goodman) in the back seat of an old Buick on their way to Chicago. Mile after mile, he wise cracks at the expense of Davis. The inside joke, if it can be called such, is that everyone (except perhaps the Gorfeins) knows that Davis is finished. The only one who doesn’t get it is Davis.
There are a couple of strong points to this film that might get missed in the initial viewing. First, the photography is quite stunning. Grim, yes, but also beautiful in its use of stark contrasts. Club scenes. Snow scenes. A long shot of an overdosed Turner collapsed on a bathroom floor.
Second, whether or not you like folk music, you have to credit the film’s music producer T-Bone Burnett for providing a soulful series of songs. There’s a grit to this music that could easily get covered in sweaters and layers of harmony. Don’t be fooled. The film’s songs represent American hope and agony, confidence and despair. Case in point: The opening and closing number: “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.”
Inside Llewyn Davis might be the Coens’ equivalent to Woody Allen’s Interiors. It’s a dark exploration of a musician’s haunted existence. It’s artistic, sometimes beautiful, but quite bleak, more about hopeless resignation than humor.
Then again, I don’t think the brothers care one whit if this film has broad appeal. If the Coens have shown anything over the last 30 years, it’s that they are fearless, and maybe that’s the real point of Inside Llewyn Davis. Ultimately, art is about the narcissistic voice in your head. Even if all other voices say no, what the heck? For Davis and for the Coens, the overwhelming urge is to do it anyway.