Inside Llewyn Davis – A Coen story perfectly told. (Film Review)
When one is determined to say nothing about the Academy Awards, until subsequent years of course, it is a promise of a sacred type born of a determination in this particularl film commentator/reviewer, to not further saturate an already bloated marketplace with my completely useless predictions or opinions about what the primary awards white Anglo culture imbue with sycophantic reverence are saying about the films we love to see; but how in holy hell Inside Llewyn Davis was passed over as one of the nine bests noms or the best director noms is a mystery that further nails home my arty-fashionably-reactionary disdain for the entire process, the money and the hoopla around the God(ard)-forsaken event, and makes me pine – not for the first time today – for the ghost of Fassbinder to rise up and smite the academy with a curse. It makes absolutely no sense that a film this skillfully wrought should be overlooked by its countries prescribed accolades and although I am sure that I am far more shitty about it than the Coen brothers are, it is a repeat affront that the best films are overlooked (Stories We Tell is another one I’m struggling to remain silent about) in favour of a perverse political agenda that no one can properly pin down anyway. It wouldn’t matter if it didn’t matter, and I know in the long-term it doesn’t, but it gets tedious, not to mention disheartening to have this guff thrust down any film lovers throat every single January.
Inside Llewyn Davis has one of the most brilliant narrative structures I’ve ever seen, the feather touch of Coen subtlety reaches its summit in this beautiful film that is a road trip to nowhere, a Odyssey that leads to nothing, a profound moment of realisation that results in a repetition of mistakes, and yet the repetitious cycle that in many ways owns Llewyn as much as he owns it is born of an identity search for the authentic artistic representation of something that has been creatively exhausted. Incredibly, the Coen’s don’t just use this circular narrative to tell a story, they mould the film around it so that Llewyn’s furrow acts as an interruption to momentum, stalling any progression, forcing the very fabric of the film itself into its prescribed mouldings. For the viewer, it all starts to come together about half way through the film, when it dawns that the experience of viewing is intimately tied in with the faux experience of living, and for this viewer, awareness gripped in a sudden moment of realisation that resulted in a overwhelming warmth and compassion for the deeply unlikable Llewyn Davis.
As usual for a Coen brothers film setting is crucial. Inside Llewyn Davis is set in 1961 Greenwich Village New York, the period just before Dylan started to play at the Gaslight and everything changed. The folk scene is playing on repeat, the artistic strivings toward an obviously unreachable authenticity that posits itself against a desire to connect with the audience in front of you. How do you make new stuff out of the old stuff without selling out? How do you perform the old stuff authentically in front of people who want a slice of “truth” passed to them over their booze before they hit life again? Loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk (but it is in no way a bio pick) the central character exemplifies a time that had a spiky relationship with success, again the question of authenticity being at the heart of the overwhelming indecision and lack of momentum. At the end of the film, Dylan makes an appearance and plays after Davis, and it signifies change, but not for Davis himself, who is so trapped by his inability to act in a meaningful way that the films tension is perfectly divided between the arrival of Dylan and a can’t-mention-for-spoilers implication of the eternal nothingness of Llewyn Davis. It is a heartbreakingly beautiful moment that had me weep for the enormous pain of being alive.
Connected to the astonishing story arc is another brilliant Bruno Delbonnel cinematography experience, which means a lot of colour affects and corrections, grainy, gritty feel, gradations of soft light and soft focus that sit around the characters like a gentle hand of god, caressing them, holding them, carrying them to us through a muted space, rather than using, say a stark black and white (think of Fargo and the piercing black and whites of the snow and the way it makes the characters vulnerable) might exact a harsh judgement on characters we already don’t like. The Coens extract fine performances out of a wonderful cast of almost cameos, the exception to the incidental being the omnipresent Oscar Isaac who is somehow makes us love a revolting solipsistic individual and Cary Mulligan who gets to show off her skills with a meaty female character, the shrill shrew like Jean who carries a vulnerability at her core that evokes feelings of passionate forgiveness in the face of spiteful if accurate assaults. This being a Coen brothers comedy, much of the funny is carried by satellite characters such as John Goodman as a heroin addicted jazz musician, Garrett Headland as a surly beat poet, Stark Sands as a musician experiencing the success Davis craves and doesn’t crave and F. Murray Abraham as the only voice of reason in the film. The one missing is Justin Timberlake who never really does it for me, who still looks like he’s about to break out into a boy band dance routine.
In the end, what makes Inside Llewyn Davis such a strikingly excellent film is its devotion to the narrative arc as a collective, that it’s message is brough to full circle in the cleverest of ways has as much to do with the beautiful dialogue, the cinematography and the top-notch acting skills as it does with the editing and directing of the film. This is as complete a cinematic experience as you will find in our current day. Feast for the mind.