Skip to main content

Hey look… I’m really happy for the gig, but who… wrote this?

Inside Llewyn Davis
(2013)

(SPOILERS) The cat is the hat. At least, as far as Joel and Ethan Coen motifs are concerned. It seems nigh on impossible for the brothers to make a bad movie. Occasionally they disappoint slightly (The Ladykillers) but usually they invite praise so effusive, it’s embarrassing. Inside Llewyn Davis falls into the category of one of their smaller, more offbeat, and idiosyncratic pictures, although such lines are always blurry (they rarely make costly, commercially calculated fare), and it comes up as one of their very best. Of course, their very best number about two thirds of their output. Such reliability ensures their pictures feel like special gifts, to be savoured and cherished when they arrive every couple of years.


The brothers clearly enjoy immersing themselves in period trappings (tellingly, they’ve expressed zero interest in making a science fiction movie; apart from anything else, where would they locate their reference points?), and the milieu of Davis is a new one; 1961 New York and the vibrant Greenwich Village folk scene. They aren’t slaves to authenticity, however (a number of anachronistic details skew later, but fit the overall mood or themes); it’s the evocation of the time rather than rigorous details that they’re after. I don’t know my Dave van Ronk, but the Coens loosely based Llewyn Davis on his posthumously published autobiography The Mayor of McDougal Street. They go their own way, of course, and this is all a frame to explore another of their misbegotten heroes, for whom nothing quite seems to work and who, either through blinkeredness or bloody-mindedness, is his own worst enemy. Several of their previous creations come to mind; the spiralling into chaos of A Serious Man, the self-involved playwright of Barton Fink. And informing the mood is a wonderfully immersive soundtrack produced by T-Bone Burnett, who performed similar duties on their most musical earlier picture O Brother, Where Art Thou?


So there are certain familiar beats here, and recognisable character quirks, but there’s never the remotest feeling they’re repeating themselves. And, for a movie that follows its lead’s unfocussed path, Davis never comes across as if it’s blowing in the wind, in search of a narrative. I’m very glad the Coens put the cat(s) in, but that’s the only justification for their concern that there was too little plot. It’s a typically bemusing comment from them anyway and, given their amusingly unforthcoming way with interviews when pressed to unburden themselves of thematic devices or subtexts, it was probably not intended completely seriously (perhaps the need not to expose subtexts partly explains why science fiction wouldn’t appeal; it’s difficult to get way from overt readings in that genre).


Is Davis really a loser, or is he the victim of the cruelty of the Fates? The Coens won’t be drawn on such matters. It’s quite evident that, like the also titular Barton Fink, Llewyn looks down on much of the creative output his peer group, be it friends Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan, though Jean isn’t so keen on Llewyn) or guileless soldier boy Troy Nelson (Stark Sands). Barton fetches up in Hollywood, where his attempts to reveal something beautiful fall on deaf ears. Barton is more hoisted by his own petard than Llewyn, perhaps, but both are equals at digging their own holes, unable to discern the dividing line between the purity of their art and entrenchedness of their egos. Davis is given more tangible pain (he has lost Mike, his former singing partner, to suicide) but is too self-involved too make good on the help others offer him. We see it with the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), whose cat he loses, and Jean, whose stream of vitriol seems to confirm that only ill can come to Davis (but also must also surely conceal genuine feeling; its unclear if she sleeps with Max Casella’s Pappi to secure Davis a gig, but there’s a strong implication that’s the case).


Davis isn’t a bad guy; he means well, but he can only really express kindness for Ulysses the cat, for Ulysses surrogate, and show for empathy towards the cat he later broadsides. The Coens will no doubt claim that the cat is just a cat, but it’s Llewyn’s genuine care (at the expense of a conversation with Jean over terminating her pregnancy) that invites an appreciation of his finer qualities, only otherwise exposed when he is playing. It’s in the latter moments, rehearsing old standards or not, that we see the genuine feeling, giving the lie to his claim that it’s only for the money.


He’s a contradictory character; of course he is. And the Coens love to pile on their characters’ pain almost as much as Sam Raimi likes to beat on Bruce Campbell. But in this case there’s a roundedness that ascends beyond stylistic indulgence and cute jokes (and I do love their formal stretching, and would never claim to be disappointed by their apparent indifference to deep and meaningful explorations of life and existence; for one thing, when they broach such areas they can’t do it entirely straight-faced, and I think I’d be disappointed if they did). Davis is so affecting because he’s hopelessly wayward, lost unto himself. Disaster compounds disaster, to the point where he looks to have given up on his dream; he’s resigned to getting back to the Merchant Navy and making some money. But that also seems to elude him. Compounding the cosmic joke, the last scene finds Llewyn sharing the bill with someone about to make it big. While fame awaits Bob Dylan, Davis props himself up, rueful and broken, in the club’s back alley.


The Coens ask us to accompany Davis in his inexorable, almost stoical downfall. It’s not a tragedy so much as an inevitability, of which Davis seems balefully resigned. He engages in the occasional temperamental outburst (at the club, leading to a beating) but he’s also the observer of his slow disintegration. Jean isn’t so far wrong, amid the invective, when she accuses him of willing himself to fail. But Isaac makes Davis likable, even at his worst when heckling a poor performer in a fit of pique. Although the Coens allow the lead to be buffeted as much as their average protagonist, there’s a sense of affection here too; they aren’t just mischief-making with him from a lofty remove.


It’s not made clear how much of Davis’ disposition results from the death of his partner Mike (who even managed to jump off the wrong bridge in his bid to escape from the world). The reason for his ex not telling him she was keeping the child is not expanded upon (nor is the time frame relating to this and Mike’s death), but it suggests Davis’ traits are not recent ones. He was no ray of sunshine even before his loss.  But his loss clearly doesn’t help; his outburst at the Gorfeins is directly related to Mikey, and Jean may have slept with the bar owner out of pity for his going-nowhere solo arse.


Davis is heartfelt in his apologies, but the morbid content of his songs suggests an inability to escape his prison. Jean’s contention that everything he touches turns to shit even seems true of cats (his father actually does shit himself when Davis plays for him). Maybe he doesn’t want to succeed without his partner; but we’re never really privy to how much he valued their artistic collaboration. Only in his final show; the last performance we see features one of “their” songs, and that the performance is so heartfelt is surely crucial.


The twisted reflection of Davis’ artistic pose (he is a talented interpreter but not a creator of songs) is found in John Goodman’s vituperative jazz musician Roland Turner; he shows a level of disdain that makes Davis mocking acts or Jim’s flagrantly commercial instincts look meek and mild. Turner has only bile, spewing forth, expressing himself more than just words as, overdosing, he topples forward onto the floor of a men’s room like a huge floundering fish. The precise nature of Turner’s relationship with Garett Hedlund’s taciturn Beat poet (who is on the road) is left to the imagination, but this isn’t a world where everyone else is happier than the unlucky protagonist. They’re just more compromised and less itinerant.


The supporting cast are uniformly excellent. Even Timberlake, who was the only bum note in The Social Network. Ethan Phillips, best known as the ultra-irritating Neelix in Star Trek Voyager makes his Coens debut, but seems like ideal actor fodder for them. Max Cassella, Hedlund and Adam Driver (hilarious in his contribution to Please Mr Kennedy) are great, Mulligan as perfect as ever and it’s always a joy to see Abraham and Goodman.


T Bone Burnett’s musical choices are as persuasive as those in O Brother. And Isaac’s performances are tremendous (the climactic Fare the Well, especially). Most of the songs are reworked traditional pieces (as Llewyn says, "If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song") but there’s an original comic highlight in Please Mr Kennedy that, if South Park can get an Oscar nom, really should have been recognised (it’s notable too how Davis, for all his tortured posturing, really enjoys jamming to such a flaky tune). Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography is gorgeous; the faded poster suggests something verging on the monochrome, but there's more to this than just the muted browns of times past. His is a vivid palate, albeit a wintery one, as you’d expect from the frequent colleague of Jean Pierre Jeunet and Tim Burton. The close-ups of Davis singing are as striking as the blizzards he drives through. The freeway has the sort of subtle menace last seen in Blood Simple. It’s a testament to Delbonnel that Roger Deakins isn’t missed.


And the cat. It’s best just to enjoy the Coens’ peccadillos, as attempts to root out the layers beneath are doomed. One might pick the obvious and note that Llewyn’s journey goes nowhere while Ulysses makes it home against incredible odds and to a rapturous welcome from his family (The Incredible Journey poster, two years too early, is a nice touch that I’m sure the tickled brothers couldn’t resist). They may have enjoyed working with cats as little as Oscar Isaac, but no one lets it show. The kitties irresistible and adorable, from Ulysses’ bewildered gaze out of a subway train window, as stations rush by, to the poor wounded moggy dragging itself into roadside shrub to expire after the distraught Llewyn has hit him.


Does Llewyn make it aboard the ship? Who knows; what is essential is that he is getting out just as Dylan is about to make it big. The moment where Davis attempts to secrete his box of unsold records under a table, only to find Al Cody’s box of unsold records already there might suggest that Davis isn’t making the wrong choice; it isn’t just his temperament that is stalling greater recognition.


I doubt the Coens care too much that Inside Llewyn Davis only received a sliver of Oscar attention. They’re probably wryly amused whatever happens, as that’s their thing. Noms did nothing for A Serious Man’s fortunes, although the shut out this time seems almost arbitrary. I’d like to say this is their best film in years, but that would only make it their best film since A Serious Man, and before that No Country For Old Men. Certainly though, in Inside Llewyn Davis they have created one of their greatest lead characters and a picture that can be embraced as much for it’s superb (and funny, and tragic) use of music as their trademark mordant wit and melancholic foreboding. Shit happens to Llewyn Davis, but the universe is unforthcoming as to exactly why; grief, self-indulgence, haplessness? Or all of those things. Such inscrutability is the Coen brothers all over.


*****

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).