INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013, Joel & Ethan Coen)
Go back through the Coen filmography and you’ll see a recurring theme of powerful old white men behind big desks, usually scolding our protagonist. Think about MILLER’S CROSSING, HUDSUCKER PROXY, BARTON FINK, INTOLERABLE CRUELTY, A SERIOUS MAN… the Coens sure like to present that image. Something odd happens in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS — indeed there are a couple old white men behind desks (Llewyn’s agent Mel, F. Murray Abraham’s terrific Bud [a sly bit of casting; as Salieri in AMADEUS, Abraham was forced to sit there and listen to genius and become envious — now he sits there, listens to genius, and it sails over his head], the seamen’s chiefs) but they’re not as powerful as all the other old white men who just stare at Llewyn wherever he goes. He’s on the subway and an old guy in a suit just glowers at him for no reason. He’s on an elevator and the elderly operator turns around to stare at him blankly. A gynecologist stares at him confusedly. Even his nursing-home-addled father takes a turn. In this world, Llewyn is not where he belongs. The old guard doesn’t want him there, and the young ones don’t understand.
It’s hard enough to get stared at wherever he goes — but Llewyn doesn’t even have a bed. As the homeless protagonist of this remarkably sad, hilarious, romantic film (I say this in the academic sense of romantic; I suppose I should call it Romantic), Llewyn is constantly trying to find a place to exist. Not that he really wants it — he seems content to drift, and whenever he’s offered an opportunity to sell out and settle down, he refuses it. He’s a man without a time, without a home, and virtually without friends or family. But he has his art, and whenever he plays that guitar and belts out those folk tunes, he is transported. If he belongs anywhere, it’s on a stage.
The musical performances in this film are outstanding — when we’re supposed to fall under Llewyn’s spell (as in his gorgeous audition for Bud, or the staggeringly beautiful opening scene) we do; when we see others doing well (like Jim and Jean) they certainly do (and it’s fun to see Justin Timberlake play a folk singer like this; similarly Carey Mulligan nearly reaches her “New York, New York” SHAME heights); and when the song is supposed to be a retarded pop hit (“Please Mr. Kennedy”) it’s an absolute riot (Adam Driver steals the show in a bit part). But the acting performances are outstanding too: Oscar Isaac is a big surprise for me. I’d only seen him in DRIVE, where he barely did anything, yet his troubled singer here is a creative and mesmerizing performance. John Goodman threatens to be as annoying as he is in THE BIG LEBOWSKI (still, to this date, the only Coen Brothers film of the 16 I don’t like) but turns in an immensely entertaining character.
But it wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers film without the visuals, and they are as magnificent as ever. Imagine my surprise to learn it was Bruno Delbonnel behind the camera and not Roger Deakins — after all, the muted color palette, cool light, and graceful movements seemed 100% Deakins to me. (And aside from BURN AFTER READING, this is the first Coen Brothers film since MILLER’S CROSSING in 1990 that wasn’t shot by Deakins — he had done 11 of the last 12). But Delbonnel steps into the role miraculously; from the very first few shots you’re transported into the world of 1961 Greenwich Village and drinking in the exacting compositions, bold textures, and well-worn colors of the period. The film looks amazing. And it’s stocked with shots that could only be framed by the Coens: like Llewyn trudging through the snow away from an empty Chicago stage with buses and clouds in the background; a massive cafeteria with only a couple of tables in use late at night; Llewyn lying beaten in a dark NYC alley with a shadowy figure disappearing in the background. I can’t wait to see this again just to play with those images once more.
Oh, also there’s a cat in it so of course it’s awesome.