Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) – Review

Review: Inside Llewyn Davis is a circular character drama that uses the 1961 Greenwich Village folk music scene to show the audience something about themselves, about humanity. The film is about a struggling folk singer and guitar player Llewyn Davis. He is kind of an asshole, favoring the integrity of his music over all else. He has bad manners and a surly disposition, leaving him short on friends to freeload off. Davis is desperately trying to make a career out of his music, but it just does not seem to be working out – on top of that he is dealing with the death of his former partner Mike, who recently committed suicide.

Like many of the Coen Brothers’ films, Inside Llewyn Davis is a parable with an antihero at its center. Here, the lesson appears to be about the beauty of artistic expression, when humanity is otherwise often marred in ugliness. Davis is completely unlikable in almost every way. He is a leach who does not seem to care about anyone other than himself, just grinding it out trying to play music as a source of employment. And yet, when he does perform there is something marvelous to it. The Coen Brothers expose the man as being deeply passionate and affected by life – how else could he absolutely capture the emotions of the songs he plays and resonate so strongly with the audience?

But, Davis is also not completely lost. When he finds out that he may have impregnated Jean (and thereby potentially ruining her home life with her partner Jim), Davis does not hesitate to step up to pay for the abortion. Yes, it is easy to say that he is eager to pay to avoid any future responsibility, and this is probably partially true, but he also could have just as easily told her that it was her problem to deal with (which would be in line with how he behaves in other situations, like abandoning a strung-out Roland Turner). This indicates that on some level he does care about Jean – who is in a way his moral compass. Davis also seems to care about the Gorfein’s cat Ulysses, as if saving the cat will somehow make up for all his other bad deeds. Still, in the end, Davis is fairly despicable and hard for the audience to get behind.

That said, the Coen Brothers do something quite interesting with their portrayal of the world around him to get the audience on his side (though, I am not sure it will work for every viewer). Basically, Davis is shown as a pure musician and one who is genuinely talented. The Coen Brothers interact with the world of the film and all the other characters through the perspective of Davis – who more or less looks down on everyone else. Thus, the other characters are either just as awful as (if not more so than) Davis or laughably goofy. Thus, the audience too takes on Davis’s perspective of superiority, which allows the film to work as a comedy as the Coen Brothers roll out a series of odd characters and situations for Davis to encounter.

The musical performances are really the standout aspect of the film, which some ways works as a musical – on a much purer level than the typical musical structure viewers are used to as filmgoers. Davis delivers a number of fantastic performances and the audience are treated to a few others from supporting characters as well (like the hilarious Please Mr. Kennedy). It is in these performances where the film and Davis expose their souls, where the beauty and emotional power of the music is put on display to shine, erasing all the ill feeling the audience might feel towards Davis. Despite being an ugly person, his music is something special and the audience is able to see something deeper, truer inside him (which creates a connection). This speaks to humanity in general. Throughout our existence, humanity’s history is littered with unmistakable heinous repulsiveness, yet our history too is filled with monumental achievements of grace (often resulting from the arts). There is a dichotomy within people, they have it within themselves the ability to destroy and create wonders. The beauty and emotion of Davis’s music may in fact come out of his tortured life. It is his release. The music allows Davis to show his emotions (grief, loss, a joyful exuberance for the music, and so on), and may in fact be his redemption.

Another interesting aspect of the film is the circular narrative structure that the Coen Brothers employ. The film starts and ends with the same sequence, a flash forward that the audience does not realize is a flash forward until the scene happens again to end the film. In between, the audience experiences a week in Davis’s life, as he desperately tries to make something of his career, going up to Chicago to play for a music promoter/club owner. Like many of the Coen Brothers’ narratives, the world just seems to have it out for Davis (some of which he probably brings upon himself). As much as he wants to make it as a performer, everything seems to be working against him. The audience sees him struggle for a week with really nothing to show for it. Has he even grown as a man or learned anything new? But as with other Coen Brothers’ films, the point is not so much the character, rather he is just a foil for them to express something deeper – which is really more up to the audience’s interpretation than an exact meaning.

Inside Llewyn Davis is odd and quirky, like most of the Coen Brothers’ work. But additionally, some viewers may find it to be overly long in parts (I am specifically thinking of the road trip to Chicago sequence). While the pacing did not bother me, I can see it being an issue for those not fully engaged in the narrative, as it is a bit slow.

The music in Inside Llewyn Davis is onto itself a good enough reason to see the film (especially for fans of folk music), but the Coen Brothers offer so much more with their typically irregular characters and penetrating parable narrative.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: The Coen Brothers, who briefly ventured closer to a conventional Hollywood narrative with True Grit (though, still a film I really liked), have found their way back to making wonderful, strange films with Inside Llewyn Davis, which feels in some ways like a companion piece to Barton Fink and A Serious Man, and musically maybe a bit of a continuation of O, Brother Where Art Thou? The Coen Brothers continue to distinguish themselves as true American auteurs, with each new film both expanding their impressive catalog and exploring something new and grand. Each of their films (minus a couple) is a cinematic treat.

As stated many times above, the music in the film is fantastic. The Coen Brothers and executive music producer T-Bone Burnett have assembled and crafted a very strong array of folk songs that entertain and get to the soul of their performers. However, Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography may be the film’s most impressive aspect. It is at the same time surreal and felicitous, creating a feeling within the audience that they are watching a time-soaked period drama (which they are) – it feels both old and new. It also perfectly echoes the grief stricken sadness of Davis, thereby fitting the tone very well. There is even a slight hint of nostalgia, despite all the characters being fairly unlikable. Jess Gonchor’s production design provides a real authenticity to the film, as everything looks and feels as it should. Gonchor also succeeds in using his design to speak to who these characters are – which particularly can be seen in Mary Zophres’s costume design.

In some ways the film is episodic, with sequences feeling separate and insular – characters coming in and out. There are many small performances, all of them strong. Garrett Hedlund has almost no dialog, for example, but feels so dynamic on-screen. Other great small supporting performances come from Ethan Phillips, Stark Sands, Max Casella, Justin Timberlake, F. Murray Abraham, and especially Adam Driver (who just steals the Please Mr. Kennedy scene). John Goodman plays Roland Turner, an obnoxious aging cripple jazzman. As unlikable as Davis is, Goodman’s Turner makes him appear in a much better light (if only for a moment). Carey Mulligan is fantastic as Jean, a young woman and folk singer who is both fed up with Davis and probably secretly still has a thing for him (because why else would she care so much about him or be so infuriated by him). Her scene in the park opposite Davis is maybe the most compelling, acting wise, of the film (really, I kind of wish there was more between these two as their chemistry is electric). Oscar Isaac is brilliant as Llewyn Davis. He has always been a good character actor, but this film sees him at his best. He plays Davis to be a dirt bag, yes, but behind all that is a man who is in intense emotional pain. Maybe all his bad behavior is just a protective front or him acting out against a world that has seemingly never given him a real chance, instead taking so much from him.

Summary & score: Fans of the Coen Brothers will again be enchanted by yet another great character driven parable, and in addition Inside Llewyn Davis offers incredibly moving and entertaining musical performances. 8/10

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