Once again, with Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers have produced a movie that creates more an over arching sense of mood that gets lodged in the viewer’s head and leaves them wondering if they missed something than a traditional Hollywood narrative film.
This is a feeling I’ve had from all the Coen Brothers’ movies I’ve seen (well the good one, lets just forget Intolerable Cruelty shall we) and while it is certainly frustrating, something about the way in which they do this keeps me going back for more, and yes I am one of those people who loves The Big Lebowski, I just find it hard to quite work out why sometimes.
With Inside Llewyn Davis what we have is something two-fold.
First is the outward story, what there is of it. Set in the folk scene of New York’s “Village” in the early 1960s we meet Llewyn Davis (a rough composite of several real life performers including Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott) as he tries to ‘reboot’ his career following the death of his performing partner and falls on hard times in the process as he jumps from couch to couch (and sometimes floor) of his friends and acquaintances.
In the midst of this is a brief trip to Chicago, with a great cameo from Coens regular John Goodman. This sequence evokes something of Kerouac’s On The Road, far better than the actual film adaptation seemed to manage, before we wind up back in a New York coffee-house with Davis back on stage followed by what looks very much like a young Mr. Zimmerman.
Davis’ personal story amongst this doesn’t actually go very far (despite the regular couch hopping and mid-west jaunt) and this is where the other side of the film comes in and is presented very interestingly by the Coen’s both through the use of a clever little cyclical trick and the contrast of a cat.
In this we get something of a comment on the life of a struggling artist, and one that is surprisingly bleak and seems a bit odd coming from such a successful pair as the Coens. Davis, essentially, is shown to be a stubborn man sticking to his view of the world, and thus artistic vision, with no awareness of the problems it is causing him and at no point even seeming to try to do anything to help himself change this.
Taking it to an even bleaker level is that this message could be translated to a broader scope and be added to the comments from the likes of The King Blues (amongst many others across history) that all life is for ‘the masses’ is to work a dead-end job simply to survive and, if you don’t do something about it, it’s just going to keep on like that.
That all sounds a bit bleak and miserable though and, while that is certainly part of Inside Llewyn Davis, it is not everything. Laced through the film is a comic strain that is typical to the Coens’ movies so, while there is much talk of death and abortion, the scenes involving Davis and the cat are generally highly amusing and Goodman’s turn as an aging jazz-er is comical – in a dark kind of way.
Along with this are the performances which are wall to wall excellent. Oscar Isaac is onscreen for almost the entire duration of the movie and his performance of Llewyn Davis is a genuine, understated tour de force as he performs the music as well as the acting with aplomb and entirely inhabits the character in a way not often seen in mainstream American cinema.
All of the other performances are similarly involved and, besides Goodman (who is very good in a different way), everyone makes the absolute most of their part even if they aren’t always very well-developed. I was left with the impression that the lack of development is because what we are really seeing is Davis’ impression of all the other characters rather than their actual fully rounded personalities.
Inside Llewyn Davis continues The Coen Brothers’ trend for making good but strangely frustrating films that sit with the viewer long after the movie has finished, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, like with Fargo and The Big Lebowski, this is a film that draws me back time and again, and certainly I’m going to be seeking out the soundtrack soon too.