Thursday, January 23, 2014

TORTURED ARTIST: a review of "Inside Llewyn Davis"

Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
**** (four stars)

"When you lay your life down in them grooves
You know you're bound to get
Scratched up sometimes..."
-Todd Rundgren ("Fair Warning")

If the Coen brothers set out to do what I think they did, then their latest film is simply ingenious.

"Inside Llewyn Davis," the 16th film from the inimitable fraternal Writing/Directing team of Joel and Ethan Coen, is yet another high achievement in a career, which aside from a couple of rare exceptions, contains nothing but high achievements. It is a challenging, prickly, haunting, darkly humorous and often bleak film that is as idiosyncratic and as singular as any of their previous works yet it also feels like the latest chapter in an ongoing Coen brothers' story. As always, the Coens defy whatever expectations one might have, in this case, towards a film about a folk singer and set during the folk music scene in early 1960s Greenwich Village, by playing their cards very closely to their chests, almost not revealing any sense of intent until near the film's conclusion.

While this may have some of you scratching your heads, wondering throughout the viewing just what the point of this experience may be, just remain patient because I believe once it all becomes clear to you as it did for me, the effect will feel like a bolt of lightning. And perhaps, as I elucidate over "Inside Llewyn Davis," while I promise, as always, to not produce spoilers, my thoughts may inform the overall experience. So, if you prefer to view "Inside Llewyn Davis" completely uninformed, then feel free to save this review to read after you see the film. Dear readers, regardless of those previous words, do trust me on this one as I definitely would not steer you wrong. At this precarious time in cinema, where films have grown to be more homogeneous and the individual creative voice has become increasingly rare, we should all thank our lucky stars that we have Joel and Ethan Coen, filmmakers who have somehow marched valiantly, continuously, unapologetically, and unrepentantly to their own creative rhythms for 30 years and with "Inside Llewyn Davis," they have not only proven that they have no signs of running dry anytime soon, they have delivered one of my favorite films of 2013.

Opening upon the image of a microphone in the smoky Gaslight Cafe nightclub circa 1961, "Inside Llewyn Davis" stars Oscar Isaac in the title role, a folk singer reeling from the suicide of his singing partner yet has decided to continue onwards as a solo act to limited success, if that. Essentially penniless and homeless, Llewyn Davis spends his days and nights trying to survive on his art on his own terms while also sleeping upon any couch he is able to find through his increasingly depleting circle of friends and acquaintances.

The film traces roughly one week in his turbulent life as Llewyn is faced with the weak sales and non-existent financial results of his debut solo album. He is also forced to confront folk singing competition, most notably from the singing duo of Jim and Jean (played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), and additionally endures Jean's intense rage with being possibly impregnated by him plus her demands that he pay for an abortion. And even on top of that, Llewyn Davis is hurled through a series of escalating transgressions, tribulations and desperate circumstances that befall him, including the inadvertent escape and loss of a friend's orange tabby cat, whom Llewyn feverishly tries to find and return.

A silver lining just may exist in the form of Chicago recording impresario and producer Ben Grossman (played by F. Murray Abraham), to whom Llewyn makes a pilgrimage, with the hopes that his bad luck will finally pay off, potentially leading to future good fortunes.

Joel and Ethan Coen's "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a frigidly atmospheric experience that is decidedly not a film about a plot but definitely a character portrait housed inside a work of rich texture encased a very black mood. It is a wintry film, bitterly so, that unfolds as an escalating series of painfully unfortunate events in the life of a very talented yet insufferably self-important and misanthropic protagonist. In many ways, "Inside Llewyn Davis" works as a companion piece to several previous Coen brothers' films like their homage to film noir "The Man Who Wasn't There" (2001), the grim slapstick of  "Burn After Reading" (2008), and the intensely inscrutable "A Serious Man" (2009) as all of those films feature hapless characters trapped within Kafka-esque worlds, sometimes of their own design, sometimes not, yet completely enveloping and with no hopes of relief or escape. Such is the state of being of Llewyn Davis as he is equal parts a victim of circumstance as well as the hard driving engine of his own deep misery, a duality that creates a similar reaction for the audience: You do wish him well and to finally achieve the success that he is chasing to an almost despairing degree but you also know that he is also not the person that you would want to spend much time with so as to not get sucked into his personal black hole.

The film illustrates the Coen brothers' specialized brand of nihilism once again as "Inside Llewyn Davis" concocts a dark, angry world where just having talent is not enough for survival and artistic vindication. Disappointment is paramount and life is filled with all manner of recrimination, desperation, and intense failure and it is to their great credit as writers that they never have the material come off as pretentious, only ensuring the work's wise yet gloomy portentiousness. Additionally, the Coens have only continued to somehow discover new ways to making events feel so random and meaningless yet with their writing and storytelling, the events are so meticulously devised and entirely purposeful and meaningful. If one element was just this far out of place, the entire film would fall like the proverbial house of the state of Llewyn Davis's life.

Strangely, and as nihilistic as the Coen brothers' work tends to be at times, there is indeed a sense of greater empathy at work near the core of "Inside Llewyn Davis" as we can see how the suicide of Llewyn's former singing partner has unraveled not only his life but seemingly the fabric of the connective tissue that bound their particular circle of performers and friends together. It is as if the Coens have devised a story that shows how inter-connected we truly are and how one life can indeed make all of the difference in providing a certain inexplicable balance, a balance that evaporated once that life had been extinguished. Llewyn Davis is increasingly undone throughout the film as he occasionally and mournfully listens to the one album he recorded with his partner, a ghost that follows him in seemingly every exchange he has, reminding him of the magic they created together and how that magic is missing as he performs alone. No matter how gifted a musician he actually is--and as portrayed by Oscar Isaac, who does perform his own terrific singing throughout the film, he is a gifted musician--perhaps his former partner made him even better and maybe Llewyn Davis will never be as good as a solo artist as he was in a singing duo, a possibility that elicits an unending sting.  

As directors, the Coen brothers are filmmakers who achieve what increasingly few filmmakers are able to do by creating their own film universe. As with their writing, not one element is out of place, no matter what their subject matter happens to be or which genre they may be tackling. "Inside Llewyn Davis" is no exception as the film's visual and production design is absolutely sumptuous. It is as if their film's entire visual aesthetic is based upon the merging of two classic album covers: Bob Dylan's "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" (released May 27, 1963) and especially, "Inside Dave Van Ronk" (released October 1964) by Dave Van Ronk, the artist upon whom Llewyn Davis is loosely based.  Most surprisingly, for a film world whose visual sheen is this gray and almost bleached out, the Coens, working in collaboration with Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, make "Inside Llewyn Davis" look positively lush.

All of the film's performances are as top-tier as you would expect from any film by Joel and Ethan Coen, with especially Oscar Isaac's naturalistic presence, singing and acting, still resonating deeply days after having seen the film. His self-absorption as Llewyn Davis reminded me a bit of the doomed playwright turned B-movie screenwriter in "Barton Fink" (1991) as both of those characters possess self-righteous and even self-destructive tendencies entirely based within their impenetrable stances on what they think artists should and should not be. But his shaggy dog appearance, as well as his tendencies to be polite, apologetic, regretful and truly worried about the fate of that aforementioned lost orange tabby cat who keeps re-appearing only to to disappear again to Llewyn's torment, made me think of and compare him to the genteel hero of "A Serious Man" whose life completely falls apart through no fault of his own. Isaac makes Llewyn Davis a character you do want to take in from the cold for the night even though you may wish to strangle him the very next morning.

Justin Timberlake impresses onscreen once again by seamlessly immersing himself into the Coens vision and the film's time period with ease. John Goodman, who appears as a sardonic jazz musician, always enlivens a Coen brothers' feature and Carey Mulligan delivers an unprecedented forceful wrath that always made me snap to attention. And I thought that the addition of F. Murray Abraham was an excellent and extremely clever bit of casting! To think, the once embittered Sallieri, the composer who could never grasp the keys to the musical kingdom in Milos Forman's "Amadeus" (1984) now sits as the man with the keys who may or may not allow Llewyn Davis entrance into the musical kingdom...well played, Joel and Ethan. Very well played.

At the outset of this review, I remarked about how "Inside Llewyn Davis" defies expectations about what a film about a folk singer could actually be alongside my amazement at what I think is the Coen brothers' full ingenuity with this particular project. For quite a spell as I watched the film, I was feeling that while "Inside Llewyn Davis" is set during the early '60s folk music scene, it is a film that is not necessarily about folk music but then again...

I would think the impression some of you may have towards folk music is that it is a genre that is polite, quaint, safe, sometimes saccharine and cloying, and I guess to a degree, I hold those prejudices myself. With "Inside Llewyn Davis," those (and my) perceptions were shaken over and again as I was struck by the juxtapositions of the delicate and seemingly angelic music, especially those songs performed by Llewyn Davis with his soaring, empathetic voice and precise finger pickings (like some of Joni Mitchell's best music, you can almost hear music within the spaces between the notes), merged that with the cold, coarse ugliness of the film's harsh environment. The Coen have presented a world filled with hurled profanities that are just this shy of "The Big Lebowski" (1998) and populated with junkie jazz musicians, non-communicative beat poets, and an assortment of characters lost within their respective states of dilapidation and seething rage.

And then, there are the songs themselves which, as you listen to the lyrics, are nothing more than a collection of various tales of woe, weariness, and defeat. The film opens with Llewyn performing "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," and continues with the characters of Jim and Jean performing the lament "Five Hundred Miles." Clancy Brothers inspired singing group handles the mournful ballad "The Shoals Of  Herring," and Llewyn returns with "The Death Of Queen Jane." Even the jaunty novelty tune "Please Mr. Kennedy," houses a terrified plea from a most reluctant astronaut. Just listening to the actual lyrics of the songs within the film made me realize that maybe this film is not really presenting a series of juxtapositions at all. Perhaps "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a representation of folk music.

And then, I had a realization that hit me near the conclusion of the film and definitely on my way home from the movie theater. Without producing spoilers, lets just say that the narrative of "Inside Llewyn Davis" eventually double ends upon itself, thus creating an experience that is undeniably cyclical. In doing so, what I think the Coen brothers have done is that they have used the language of cinema to essentially create a folk album!! From a storytelling standpoint as well as a thematic point, I think the odyssey of Llewyn Davis, with its motifs, recurring themes and images (like that cat), is made to exist as a record album, a circular and unending cycle of misery that plays onwards from front to back to front in endless revolution, thus signifying the path Llewyn's life is destined to take, with each failure representing a particular set of lyrics or full song. Once that idea or realization took hold, my admiration for the film solidified and skyrocketed, making it an experience I am anxious to see and immerse myself in again and again.

Sticking with the circular theme, Joel and Ethan Coen are truly on a creative roll with this film following the extremely impressive run of excellence which has included the Oscar winning "No Country For Old Men" (2007), the crowd pleasing Western remake of "True Grit" (2010), plus the aforementioned "Burn After Reading" and "A Serious Man" and "Inside Llewyn Davis" continues their amazing streak. Now having seen the film, I am now more confused than ever why the Academy Awards barely recognized it at all as I could easily see it deservedly nominated for Best Picture, Screenplay and Directing.

But maybe, it is just considering this is a film about the angst of disappointment and failure. And what a brilliant film it is.

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