Reflections on failure, grief, integrity and stubbornness. Scout Tafoya reviews the latest masterpiece from the Coen Brothers.
Every time Joel and Ethan Coen release a new film, they do so with chairs knocked in front of the path to public and critical approval. Their films have always aggressively courted darkness, making it all too clear that their interests lay in punishing their characters with the fervour of a two-headed Midwestern Sophocles. Their latest is Inside Llewyn Davis, an insomniac journey through the early 60s Greenwich Village folk scene guided by Oscar Isaac as the singer of the title, and it’s as polarising as anything they’ve done.
Even its detractors would say its beautifully made, though. It’s shot in greens and grays pushed nearly to monochrome by Bruno Delbonnel, the cinematographer I’d argue has the greatest love for the human face. The production design is spot-on, allowing the Coens’ phantom 60s to stretch as far as the eye can see, even if only for a few seconds at a time. And then there’s the music. Most of the characters are called upon to perform music during the course of the narrative (exception: John Goodman’s blustery grotesque, who the filmmakers have semi-reluctantly pointed out has as much in common with the querulous balladeer Dave Van Ronk – on whom Llewyn Davis is modelled – as Llewyn himself does) and everyone acquits themselves beautifully. The songs are heartbreaking when they need to be, if perhaps a touch too 2013 and not ragged enough to fully sound like the works of Tom Paxton, Peter, Paul & Mary or Van Ronk himself. But complaining that the music’s too good in a Coen Brothers’ joint is maybe to miss the point.
As with much of their filmography, a significant part of Inside Llewyn Davis is watching their folk hero fall, get up and fall again. No one loves him, no one seems to know that he’s talented – and he’s running out of options. As Davis, Oscar Isaac’s performance is extraordinary, hinging as it does on the audience understanding the cocktail of internal pain he’s digesting without ever being put off by his brusque demeanor or forbidding melancholy. His dream appears to be dying before our very eyes as he hops from couch to couch chasing gigs and session work that won’t do much more than get him through the day.
But there’s a key to understanding Llewyn, and the Coens give you that key. The film announces itself as a different animal to their previous work (something more feline) in its second major scene, or rather first montage. Llewyn wakes up in a friend’s apartment and after making himself breakfast and meeting the cat, he finds a record from when he was in a duo with a fresh faced blonde guy named Mike Timlin. Over the sound of himself harmonizing beautifully with Mike, he accidentally lets the cat out of the apartment and carts it with him downtown to his next temporary residence. The Coens don’t usually trade in this kind of shorthand, but they need the montage to show you what the film that follows won’t always show. They genuinely like Llewyn Davis. They understand him and want him to succeed, even if they rigged the game against him – a paradox which will feel offputtingly impenetrable to sceptics of the Coens’ work. Davis isn’t going to succeed but paramount to finding a way into the film is understanding which parts of his failure are and aren’t his fault. Perhaps you have to be a kind of failure to fully sympathize with him, and not everyone’s prepared to admit that.
The film may take place in the ’60s, but the unforgiving conditions depicted look an awful lot like modern New York. The nebulousness of the music production and style may have less to do with selling soundtracks and more to do with blurring the specificity of the period. Have things changed that much? I certainly recognized the village as the Coens captured it. I’d walked through it the day before its premiere. Anyone who doesn’t quite live in the city, whose failures are always evolving, making them hard to count, anyone who knows what it’s like to have barely enough to pay for coffee while snow soaks through your shoes to your socks – they know Llewyn’s New York, too. They know his anger, (“I do this for a living, it’s not a fuckin’ parlour game!”) and they know what it’s like to be closed off from different definitions of success. Art is why he bothers getting out of bed (or off the couch) every morning, but he’s dug in so deep he can’t see the joy in it anymore. He associated joy with Mike, but when Mike threw himself off the George Washington Bridge he inadvertently trapped Llewyn in his shadow. Mike’s memory, and honouring it, is why he still plays their song (titled, symbolically enough, “Farewell”) whenever a guitar gets placed in his hand.
It took me a few viewings to realize why Inside Llewyn Davis hit me so hard. I walked out of a Union Square movie theatre, half-melancholy because I saw so much of myself in the scruffy Davis and half-furious because no one could see the vitality of his art. Who hasn’t felt the same way? It’s how I wake up every morning. Like Davis, I wonder every day how good any of the work I do actually is. What I came to see was that no other film has ever so clearly articulated for me what it feels like to go nowhere. The lengths we go to prove we’re not wrong, that we’re somebody.
The film’s second act is a mini Apocalypse Now-style jaunt to Chicago that Llewyn takes half because he’s out of options and half because he secretly thinks that if he can play one song to convince the right person of his talent he could turn his luck around. He lurches across state lines with a couple of eccentrics even more hostile than himself (Goodman’s blustery troll and his initially monosyllabic “valet”, played by Garrett Hedlund), nearly goes to jail and nearly freezes to death, all just to play that one song for a famous promoter. Davis has to believe the journey is worth it, that he isn’t looking at an older version of himself in Goodman’s washed-up blowhard jazz musician. Whatever your reaction to Isaac singing the staggering “Death of Queen Jane” it’s impossible not to know that both directors and Davis know that this is as good as a performance as he ever has given or ever will give. For the final verse he stops strumming his guitar, stares dead at his audience of one, and finishes the song a capella. The Coens meet Isaac’s bleary, thousand yard stare and don’t break eye contact. If you can watch these 40 seconds without your spine shivering and your heart pounding, you’re made of stronger stuff than I. But it doesn’t matter how good the Llewyn Davises of the world are if producers and managers don’t think they’ll make them truckloads of money.
Llewyn considers quitting music altogether before he gives a second thought to compromising. In the parlance of Apocalypse Now, Davis has two choices, “Death, or victory,” and unfortunately both seem too far away to provide much comfort. This story isn’t always happy, but sometimes you stick to your guns and become among the most celebrated artists of your generation. Davis won’t give in because neither did the Coen Brothers, whose body of work is as rigorously uncompromising as those of Stanley Kubrick, Otto Preminger, Billy WIlder or Vincente Minelli. Dave Van Ronk wasn’t Bob Dylan, he was better, but how many people care enough to know that? After deciding if this particular journey into the heart of darkness is one you want to take, the question remaining for everyone in the audience: are you the right or the wrong cat?