26 January 2014
London

Inside Llewyn Davis, a gorgeously bittersweet love letter to early 1960s folk and a meditation on artistic failure, might be the Coen Brothers’ best film yet. 

No one puts failure on the screen quite as beautifully as the Coen Brothers. For 30 years, they’ve been the resident weirdos of American cinema, making dark, edgy, quietly terrifying films, laced with pitch black humour and with an eye for the comically grotesque. Apart from the occasional foray into broad comedy (The Hudsucker Proxy was a fun if somewhat bizarre spin on 1930s screwball comedy) their narratives have tended to lurk in the darker recesses of the cinematic paint box – film noir, westerns, thrillers – exploring the grim underside of the American dream.

The Coens’ protagonists tend to be anti-heroes: minor players in life’s lottery who are denied their due (or not so due) break, or cheerfully grinning idiots who don’t quite understand that life is a bad joke. From Barton Fink, the screenwriter with delusions of grandeur, to Holly Hunter’s baby-obsessed policewoman in Raising Arizona, to Jerry Lundegaard, the hapless used car salesman in Fargo with designs on his wife’s life insurance, the Coens have created a gallery of misanthropes, oddballs, psychotics and thwarted losers. They’ve also been responsible for discovering some of the oddest looking actors around, as if Diane Arbus was their casting agent, giving breaks to great character actors including Steve Buscemi, Frances McDormand, John Goodman, John Turturro, William H Macy and Peter Stomare. They stand as a vanguard for independent filmmaking – making the kinds of films they want to make, without compromise, and over the years have assembled a peerless list of collaborators, including composer Carter Burwell, music supervisor T Bone Burnett and cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Since discovering their dark weird world with Fargo in 1996 – a film I found horrific at first, and had to rewatch several times before I could locate the black comedy in it – I’ve enjoyed and admired the Coens’ work, but I’ve never loved it with the intensity I’ve felt for the work of their arthouse contemporaries like Jane Campion and David Lynch. Even in their warmer moments (like the wonderful O Brother Where Art Thou?, which follows three gormless ex-convicts cum folk singers through the backwaters of Depression-era America), they tend to hold their audiences at arms length, wanting us to admire the strangeness of their world, like schoolboys showing off their collection of butterflies preserved in formaldehyde.

Inside Llewyn Davis, their latest film, is, for my money anyway, their greatest achievement yet. While it’s still definitively a Coen Brothers film – precise, economical, unsentimental and morbidly funny – it has a passion and generosity of spirit missing from their other films. It’s a love letter, etched in acid, to youthful arrogance, artistic pretensions and the struggles and failures of an artist’s life, and in its quiet understated way, might well be a masterpiece.

The film follows its titular hero (played by the fantastic and very gorgeous Oscar Isaac), a good-looking wannabe folk singer with mournful puppy dog eyes, on an odyssey through the freezing New York winter of 1961. Like everything else in the film, the period setting is precisely chosen. The culture is, like the weather, frozen in the austere fashions and behaviours of Eisenhower-era 1950s, and the folk music scene is still very much underground, waiting for Bob Dylan to arrive and provide the catalyst for the explosion of youth counterculture.

When we first meet Llewyn, he gets punched in the face by a stranger for no apparent reason (though we find out why later). We learn that he’s grieving the loss of his singing partner, who has inexplicably committed suicide. With nowhere to stay, Llewyn drifts from sofa to sofa, outstaying his welcome and alienating his few remaining friends, notably Jean, a fellow folk singer who Llewyn has gotten pregnant, cuckolding his friend, Jean’s husband Jim (a wonderfully earnest Justin Timberlake). Desperate for cash, he agrees to do a recording of one of Jim’s painfully perky folk songs, forgoing his cut of the royalties so that he can get cash up front and pay for Jean’s abortion. Things go from bad to worse as he accepts a ride to Chicago with a drug-addicted jazz singer (a devilishly good John Goodman), who unloads a stream of nicely sharpened insults about folk music at an increasingly weary-looking Llewyn. Through it all, Llewyn has a cat in tow – an escapee from one of the houses he’s stayed in, which becomes a kind of unspoken talisman for Llewyn’s sense of hope and his shaky moral centre. If he manages to keep the cat with him, it seems, Llewyn may just be able to reconcile himself to all his other appalling behaviour.

Like many a Coenite protagonist before him, Llewyn is depressed, misanthropic, self-pitying and contemptuous of everyone around him. Unlike, say, Barton Fink, Llewyn is a genuinely talented artist, who plays and sings as if his life depended on it – which mostly it does. As my fabulous friend, the writer and ukulele artist Gemma Gracewood commented, Llewyn is a prototype of almost every musician she’s ever met. It’s all there – the commitment and slight sense of preciousness about his art, the knee-jerk hipster fear of never selling out, and an emotional see-sawing between unyielding self-confidence and insecurity that his ambitions are useless and that he’ll never make it. In a different kind of film, the kind of standard rags-to-riches biopic about musicians and artists that Hollywood makes so well, Llewyn would be discovered, feted, grow famous, experience a crisis, and learn the error of his ways. But as this is a Coen Brothers film, we’re asked to consider a biopic of failure, not success. Slowly and unflinchingly, but not unsympathetically, the Coens lower Llewyn further and further into a hellish scenario, partially but not fully of his own making.

Few filmmakers are as expert adjusters of mood and tone as the Coens, and their direction here shows an assurance and quiet confidence worthy of a violin virtuoso. They show an impressive restraint in never demanding that you think or feel about Llewyn in a certain way, aided by a magnificent, soulful performance by Oscar Isaac, who never solicits the audience’s approval or relies on charm, but instead lets you see Llewyn for all his many faults.

The parts of Llewyn that it seems possible to admire – his commitment to his craft, his refusal to compromise – can be viewed just as easily as faults and limitations. In one especially compelling scene, Llewyn finally gets to audition for a goateed music producer, in what seems like his last break at fame. Instead of playing his “hit”, the lovely Dink’s Song (Fare Thee Well) that we hear in various versions throughout the film, Llewyn chooses to play The Death of Queen Jane, an old English ballad about Henry VIII and Jane Seymour. Like many of the earnest, crew-necked sweater wearing youngsters crowding the folk clubs at the time, Llewyn clearly sees himself as a modern-day troubadour, valiantly continuing a tradition of authentic musical artistry from olden times. As touching as that realisation is, it’s also clear that Llewyn is a bit of a dinosaur and out of sorts in his own time. As much as we’d like him to succeed, it seems more likely that he’ll be blasted into anonymity by the arrival of Dylan, who embraced traditional music and contemporary trends in the cause of his art.

There’s a lovely melancholy – Llewyn’s and our own – that pervades every shot of the film, shot gorgeously by French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel in a desaturated palette of blues, greys and browns, like a faded LP cover from Dylan’s early days. Greenwich Village is a ghostly, ramshackle place, half-buried in fog and snow, with trash on the sidewalk and a feeling of perpetual cold that chills the bones. Since Llewyn and his cohorts are still a couple of years ahead of the zeitgeist, they look like scruffy outsiders, not fashion leaders. Llewyn’s battered corduroy coat and lack of a hat makes him look more like a vagrant than a hipster.

Chief among the many sensory pleasures of the film is the music, supervised by the great T Bone Burnett (music supervisor behind O Brother Where Art Thou? and James Mangold’s Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line). The Coens allow Llewyn and the other characters to perform songs from beginning to end, realising that for this story, the music is more than window dressing – it’s our way inside Llewyn, where we see glimmerings of the finer points of his character that are otherwise disguised by his world-weary demeanour and prickly irritability.

My dear friend Patrick wrote this in response to seeing the film, which I couldn’t put any better if I tried:

The honesty, limpidity and beauty with which this film depicts – and then transcends – the messiness of human existence make for an experience that isn’t depressing so much as utterly inspiring. It has looked misery right in the face, but then looked beyond it to show the beauty [that] exists alongside it.

And therein lies the quiet magic of Inside Llewyn Davis, and why I think it will appeal especially to fellow artists, whether established and up and coming. While human endeavour might be a series of humiliations and disappointments, occasionally it can create a thing of beauty.

The film closes just as Llewyn is on the cusp of deciding whether or not he’s done with life as a musician and will return to his former life in the Merchant Navy. Whether or not he continues, we’re still fortunate enough to have the Coen Bros’ movie. Despite its depressing subject matter, the film moved and uplifted me in a way I wasn’t expecting, and I was left feeling something I never thought I’d experience in relation the Coens: a sense of gratitude to be alive, to be able to breathe the same air as Llewyn and all his vanished kind, and to try and make art. After all, what else is there?

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