It seems like I’ve been waiting forever for this movie to come out. It must be at least a year since the first trailer appeared, then it won the Grand Prix at Cannes all the way back in May last year. After a few festival appearances, I don’t think it even get a wide American release until a month or two ago. But finally, the latest movie by Joel and Ethan Coen, possibly the most consistently interesting and reliable film makers working today, got released in Australia. I finally got to see, Inside Llewyn Davis.
It’s 1961 New York and Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is attempting a solo career as a folk musician after the suicide of his musical partner. He’s in the middle of a destructive cycle of mediocre gigs, drinking too much, then sleeping on the couch of whichever friend he has pissed off the least lately. While begging for refuge at the home of his friends Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carrie Mulliigan), Jean informs Davis that she’s pregnant, and it’s possibly his.
In search for money for an abortion, Davis seeks out gigs to play and couches to sleep on, he lowers himself to play as a session musician on a cheesy novelty song, takes an ill fated road trip to Chicago and falls lower and lower every step of the way, until he attempts to swallow his bride and take some responsibility for his life. What should be the beginning of the redemption of Llewyn Davis actually sees him crash land at rock bottom, before digging deeper. What do you do when even your last resort is no longer an option?
Because this is a Coen Brothers movie, some of the most entertaining moments are given to minor characters played by great actors who only pop up for moment or two here and there. There’s John Goodman as a junkie jazz musician, F Murray Abraham as a dismissive record company exec, Adam Driver as… I’m not sure how you’d describe his character. The story might be Llewyn’s, but the best bits belong to the people he stumbles across along the way.
If you’ve seen any trailers or read any reviews, you probably know about the cat. For the first half of Inside Llewyn Davis, the titular character spends a lot of his time trying to find, care for and return a cat that he mistakenly let out of a friends apartment. Every time I thought I’d figured out what the cat meant thematically or symbolically, the Coen Brothers would throw something new at me, contradicting my latest theory.
Did it show Llewyn’s doomed attempts to care about something other than himself? Does it represent is futile pursuit of fame and success through music? Every time he thinks he’s found it, another obstacle is thrown in his path. I have no idea, but being the Coen Brothers, it’s either the most profound statement ever made in film, or just some flippant idea they threw in there because it tickled them. No one bounces between profundity and flippancy better than Joel and Ethan Coen.
Like their last proto-musical, O’ Brother Where Art Though, the Coens teamed up again with T Bone Burnett to put together the soundtrack. And also like O Brother, it’s a major part of everything that’s really great about this movie. The music is so good that I bought the soundtrack on the way home from the cinema. But if you haven’t heard it yet or seen the movie, I really recommend watching the movie first. All the songs are used so perfectly within the story, that having heard them before might have taken away some of their impact.
In the filmography of the Coens, I’m not sure where Inside Llewyn Davis falls. Despite the odd moments of legit hilarity, there’s no way it goes with the wacked out comedy of Raising Arizona or Burn after Reading. It’s not a genre exercise like Fargo, The Big Lebowski or Miller’s Crossing. And it’s not tied to anyone else’s sensibility through adaptation like True Grit or No Country for Old men. This is pure Joel and Ethan Coen in the vein of Barton Fink and the under seen A Serious Man, but without the bigger, more fantastical flourishes of those movies. Inside Llewyn Davis is dark, cynical and border line depressing, if not for the moments of genuine hilarity the Brothers Coen let seep through every now and again.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed By – Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Written By – Joel Coen, Ethan Coen