The Coen brothers do the Sixties Greenwich Village music scene, with surreal touches
The Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis is a period musical film and hence invites comparison to the siblings’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? Indeed again there’s even a kind of “Odyssey” theme, only the milieu is of “folk” music of the early Sixties as it sprang up in New York’s Greenwich Village, rather than country music and blue grass in the Thirties American South. Llewyn Davis was warmly received at Cannes and has a sky-high critical rating, but beware — it’s a head-scratcher and a bit of a downer, despite its mild manner. It lacks the penetrating ironies of A Serious Man or the violence of No Country for Old Men. Fortunately, perhaps though continually battered, frustrated, and broke, this hero doesn’t come to a bad end. It may be assumed that despite vicissitudes Llewyn Davis will somehow fare forth, remaining a musician and singer if lacking material success. But at the same time, the “Odyssey” theme doesn’t mean the film’s “Ulysses,” the eponymous hero (Oscar Isaac) ever gets anywhere. In fact the narrative is circular, the final scene showing Llewyn getting the same beating he gets outside the Village cafe as in the opening sequence, the assailant and the reason for his grudge being made clear the second time around. There are good songs, well performed, and the dark, gloomy winter images by Amélie DP Bruno Delbonnel, filling in for the Coens regular Roger Deakins, are handsome. But Inside Llewyn Davis does not emerge as the Coens at their most successful or meaningful.
In the action, Llewyn, loosely based on Dave von Ronk, couch-surfs round New York City, returning to the Village club and record producers he’s seeking to use as a springboard to a success that never comes. In the film’s most original passge, he rides to Chicago with a laconic Garrett Hedlund driving and a mysterous John Goodman riding in the back, playing for producer F. Murray Abraham who just says, “I don’t see any money in this.” Like Ulysses, he would return to sailing, trying to renew his merchant seaman card, but in that effort, like so much else, he fails. Though the theme may not be quite clear, Llewyn, like von Ronk, represents the “authentic,” “period” folkies who, by implication, were swept away when folk-inspired singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan burst on the scene. This must be qualified, because there’s never been anybody quite “like” Bob Dylan, and because there were other original folk-inspired songwriters before Dylan’s first album.
As someone who was there, so to speak, I must also protest that people just didn’t talk like this. Middle class young women like the one played by Carey Mulligan, married to a buttoned-down Justin Timbrerlake — also a folksinging couple — did not use the F-word in every sentence as she does, no matter how angry they were at another young man for getting them pregnant. Indeed all of the characters in this film rend the air in every scene using language that was not yet current among educated people. The profanity is used for a comic effect that relies on a falsification of the period. Hence the “inspired period detailing of production designer Jess Gonchor” Scott Foundas speaks of in his glowing Variety review of this film, indeed abounding as he says in “cramped cold-water flats” and “Kafka-esue hallways narrowing toward infinity” — and thus evoking the pinched Lower Manhattan of artistic hopefuls of this era truly different from the posh Village of today — is spoiled by the tone-deaf dialogue.
Another theme that may not emerge very clearly is that Llewyn is not a nice guy, but a great musician and singer, thus illustrating (no revelation, this) that genius and niceness are not necessarily linked. Jean (Mulligan’s character) thinks he’s an irresponsible cocksman, and indeed he has engaged the services of an abortionist before. But he never seems all that selfish or mean. He visits his senile dad and sings him a song. He weathers Jean’s abuse patiently. He does have a tantrum at the MacDougal Street’s Gaslight Cafe (identified by Foundas as the venue). But given the frustrations he endures throughout the two weeks covered in the film, an explosion seems justified. So does his refusal to sing for his dead singing partner MIke’s parents, or to allow MIke’s mother to sing Mike’s part. And yet these two outbursts are forgiven by their respective victims far too easily. I was never clear how one was supposed to take Llewyn, or the music. The Coens’s habitual dryness of affect this time makes what may be meant as cool but affectionate realism feel instead like cruel and inexplicable satire.
Inside Llewyn Davis has its gloomy, patient Odyssey to nowhere. But it provides a narrative with no payoff, perhaps worse than no narrative at all. In the end its threads seems as pointless as the orange cat that escapes when Llewyn leaves Mike’s parents’ place early in the film, which he feels obliged to carry around with him. It’s a unifying thread whose meaning we may struggle in vain to interpret. (Reports are that this film has a lot of improvisation.) The best part is the strange, surreal drive cross-country with Johnnny Five (Hedlund) and Roland Turner (Goodman), when the film forgets its dubious need to evoke an era and a milieu and wanders into pure cinematic territory. I’d like to have continued on that journey.
Inside Llewyn Davis debuted at Cannes, where it won the Grand Prix (the second highest competition feature award) and was showcased at other festivals, including New York, where it was screened for this review. UK release, 24 January 2014.
Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman
Runtime: 105 min