“If it was never new and it doesn’t gets old then it’s a folk song.”
Starting with the music would probably be logical.
Reuniting the Coens with producer T-Bone Burnett some fourteen years after O Brother Where Art Thou?, Inside Llewyn Davis seems so proud of its music that it wants to hang it on every wall and stick it on every fridge door. Where convention might have us hear a few seconds or a stolen chorus, here each track is given due space to breathe, and each singer lives their performance. When it makes sense, we’re given the beginning, middle and the end to savour. It normally makes sense.
It’s the aspect of the film that has, happily, been impossible to shake since that first viewing. 2014 has, among other things, been a year packed with great individual scenes that stick in the memory: Under the Skin’s beach swim, Noah’s creation, X-Men’s time jog, Begin Again’s imagined composition. Llewyn Davis instead holds 42 minutes of music that has returned to my head time and time again – perhaps the only occasion that humming a song featuring Marcus Mumford has seemed… right.
“All the same shit is going to keep happening to you because you want it to… and also because you’re an asshole.”
In context, the sound is all the sweeter. Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t a spectacle, it’s carefully judged. Whether or not it’s accurate is secondary when dealing with a (mostly) fictional cast. Above all, it’s believable and immersive; Messrs Joel and Ethan Coen have whipped up a beautiful slice of an entire folk scene through the actions of one individual who aimlessly shuffles through life like a Medieval bard. As put by Carey Mulligan’s Jean, a folk contemporary, “we try; you sleep on the couch.”
Bumming cigarettes, borrowing money – for the most part, Llewyn Davis is a loser trapped in a cycle of poor decisions and self-imposed ignorance, a punctured delusion of grandeur and inability to effect change. For all this, the Coens’ amalgamation of real-life individuals from the Greenwich Village scene of the 1960s is achingly familiar.
To call him likeable might be a stretch, not least for a number of fellow characters – that one of his better friends calls him King Midas’ idiot, more shit-centric, brother tells us so much – but it’s also unnecessary in the circumstance. Davis, in hoping to break out, is locked in. Visiting his sister, Davis struggles to accept the possibility of leaving the music game behind, of following his father’s footsteps and returning to the merchant marine corp, viewing the option as a decision to “just exist”. His sister’s reply: “Exist? that’s what we do outside of show-business. It’s not so bad, existing.” For Davis it might be; music is about the only thing he can do well – though not the show-business side so much.
While it may be a struggle to love Davis the character, there’s no such problem with Davis the film. That the Coens have admitted to having the idea float around for several years seems obvious. Every shot bleeds care, demanding to be viewed again. And as New York gives way to Chicago via one of the stranger cinematic road trip collectives, sepia claustrophobic corridors dissolve into harsh vistas and long sterile spaces lack the hazy vibrancy of Greenwich Village. Out of his comfort bubble, even Davis, a pot of alternating rage and resignation, is different: playing guitar on the journey, mugging for an audience that isn’t there.
For a film so covered in a wintry grime and concerned with the sustained downfall of its protagonist, it’s also blisteringly funny, more often than not at Davis’ expense. “Black comedy” doesn’t really do it justice – is there a colour darker than black? – as characters and incidents frequently punctuate the tone.
The sight of Isaac scrambling about after a cat down a fire escape, or of Stark Sands’ good-ol’-boy contemporary eating cereal in a rocking-chair are just plain funny. And though almost a cliché to say, John Goodman’s near-obligatory (Scene Stealers-bait) cameo isn’t easily forgotten, nor his ruminations on welsh rarebit – “I found myself purging from every orifice, one of them like a fire hose.” It’s a different kind of aural satisfaction to what Davis offers, and the mark of Joel and Ethan Coen’s crackling script.
The Americana, the music and the presence of a certain “Ulysses” may lend easy comparisons to O Brother Where Art Thou?, but Inside Llewyn Davis never once pales in the shadow of its enormously successful brother, something that would be worth writing about in itself. Unlike O Brother though, Davis is no epic; at one point Davis himself admits “I was away… it seemed like it was a long time but it was just a couple of days.” No, not an epic. One really great film though.
One Room With A View’s Top 20 of 2014 (so far):
20 = X-Men: Days of Future Past
20 = Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
19. The LEGO Movie
17. 22 Jump Street
16. The Wind Rises
15. Mr Turner
13. Starred Up
12 = The Raid 2
12 = Nightcrawler
11. Dallas Buyers Club
10. Gone Girl
8. Guardians of the Galaxy
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel
5. The Wolf Of Wall Street
4. Under The Skin
3. 12 Years A Slavc
2. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
Stay tuned as we count down to our Number One film of 2014. Revealed December 30th.