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Inside Llewyn Davis

2014-02-07 09:46
What it's about:

Based very loosely on the life story of legendary folk singer, Dave Van Ronk, the Coen Brothers' latest tells the story of Llewyn Davis, a down on his luck folk singer , who is left to pick up the pieces of his quickly disintegrating career after the suicide of his singing partner, Mike. As he tries hopelessly to make a mark in the overcrowded and generally impoverished Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961, he has to navigate his way through incompetent management, fraught relationships and one seriously tenacious cat. Or is that cats?

What we thought:

It's hard to know where to even start with this one. What looks at the outset to be a fairly straightforward examination of a particularly interesting period in the history of American popular music, quickly proves itself to be one of the Coen Brothers' most challenging and least accessible films ever. And considering that these are the guys who brought us such provocatively anti-mainstream films as A Serious Man and Barton Fink, that's really saying something. Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece, make no mistake, but it's one that's going to alienate, if not outright infuriate, a good number of regular cinema goers and Coen acolytes alike.

As one of those acolytes – the Coens are very simply my all-time favourite filmmakers – I confess that I was thoroughly and completely floored by the film, but as Inside Llewyn Davis basically plays like a Coens film on a batch of very bad acid, neophytes and the Coen-ambivalent should approach with extreme caution. Needless to say, while I'm disappointed that the film was almost entirely ignored for the upcoming Oscars, I can't say that I don't understand how or why that happened.

Sure, on a technical level, the film is clearly and quite demonstrably a momentous achievement with its razor sharp dialogue, note-perfect soundtrack and towering performances that should be exactly the sort of thing the Academy awards. Even the lack of the Coens' regular cinematographer, the peerlessly brilliant Roger Deakins, didn't prevent the film from being as visually arresting as anything the Coens have ever made, as notable Frech cinematographer, Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement) steps up to the plate with his own distinctive, yet oddly familiar, visual flair.

However, even if all this makes the film fairly easy to embrace on a technical level, the actual story it's telling is something else entirely. Oscar Isaac is simply sensational as our titular anti-hero who is clearly a talented guitarist and singer, but is drowning in existential despair as he is met with nothing but roadblocks and rejection in his attempts to live life as a working musician. Worse, while his chosen career is battering him (sometimes literally) at every turn, he is confronted with the image of his father: a man who spent his life as a hard working, well-respected blue collar worker whose years of hard, honest work has left him a broken, bitter old man.

As someone trying to make a living out of writing, this struck a particularly gloomy chord with me but even those not trying to earn a living in tough old world of the media and the arts will find something uncomfortably familiar in this pitch-black portrayal of a working life. This sort of story is very unusual for Hollywood and it's particularly surprising that so bleak a take on the life of an artist comes to us from two of the most acclaimed and beloved artists in modern American cinema; two artists who have made a solid (if not blockbuster) amount of money making films very much their own way.    

This being the Coens though, simply calling the film depressing would hardly be exactly accurate either. It may be true that the film is as dark and as bleak as anything they have ever done, but it's also a film peopled by unforgettable characters (many based on real personalities involved in the folk scene at the time) and features a sense of surrealistic oddness that brings to mind the weirder bits of The Big Lebowsi and O Brother Where Art Thou. And, oh yes, the film is also hysterically funny, albeit sardonically and often twistedly so. Carey Mulligan is particularly wonderful as she plays very much against type as a perennially pissed off folkie whose very explicit (but only sort of deserved) animosity towards Llewyn Davis results in some truly breathtaking put downs, with “everything you touch turns to shit, you're like King Midas' idiot brother” being a particular favourite of mine.   

Inside Llewyn Davis is, in a phrase, joyously depressing and no doubt the film's tonal strangeness is a big part why it fails so spectacularly to work for some people, but for me it became a trip that I didn't want to end. It's not neat, it's not straightforward and it's not exactly uplifting but, for me at least, seeing the Coen Brothers in full-on Coensy form is more than fun enough.

Before we go though, I can't leave without mentioning the music. Oh, the music. An instant classic that can sit right up there with T-Bone Burnett's brilliant previous soundtracks, Crazy Heart and O Brother Where Art Thou, the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack stands up perfectly on its own terms but it works on a whole other level in the film itself as its warmth and beauty serves as a powerful contrast to the relentlessly icy visuals.

While Mulligan unveils a truly beautiful singing voice and Justin Timberlake proves to be incredibly adept with a musical form that is vastly different from his usual fair, it is once again Oscar Isaac who truly wows by backing up his incredible acting breakthrough with some seriously impressive musicianship. Five Hundred Miles and Fare Thee Well are particular highlights but with plenty of reinterpretations of traditional folk songs and even an unreleased early Bob Dylan track, this is one soundtrack (and, especially considering its subject matter, one film) that fans of classic Americana won't want to miss.

Bizarre, impenetrable and bleak. Joyous, funny and brilliantly made. Inside Llewyn Davis is all these things and more and is all but guaranteed to divide audiences everywhere. Don't let that fool you though: this is the Coens at their best.
Read more on:    carey mulligan  |  justin timberlake  |  movies

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