Inside Llewyn Davis – Film Review

Davis 2The Coen’s never make it easy on the audience. They weave their stories from the inside out. The very inner circle is deep with details and rich in emotion and meaning. As the circles swirl outward the fidelity of the details is dialed back. Occasionally they circle back to the inside but then come right back up, continuing to draw the circles but with dashed lines as they approach the surface of the film. That surface is what we see and hear on the screen. Their process is unique and always fascinating.

Inside Llewyn Davis is textbook Coen. Joel and Ethan leave it to us to color in meaning while they present us with one staggering scene after another. Most films today are cut, cut, cut; never allowing the camera to linger long enough to see everything in the frame. The Coens have perfected the exact opposite approach. They cut when the emotion of the scene says to cut.

Llewyn (Lou-in) played with solid pitch by Oscar Isaac is a wanna be folk singer now on his own after a break-up with his partner. He’s pretty much a despicable, irresponsible person that we have trouble drumming up even a smidgen of sympathy for. Llewyn does not have a home, or even a winter coat. He crashes at a different place every night, carrying his guitar and one bag of belongings. He sleeps on the floor, but on a good night he gets a couch.

He bounces from one bad experience to the next like the silver sphere in a pinball machine. The time is 1962 in the Greenwich Village poet/art scene. He rings the buzzer of Jean (Carey Mulligan) clutching a yellow cat with no where else to go. Ms. Mulligan has one of the sweetest smiles on the screen but can never show it off in this part. She constantly rails against Llewyn but has her own demons to wrestle with. Jean is with Jim (Justin Timberlake) who is connected to the record industry in a more orthodox fashion.

The story is a big circle, starting and ending in the Gaslight Poetry Cafe where folk singers take the stage in a dark, smoke-filled cellar space to perform. In between the bookends of the opening and closing scenes, the Coens take us through a truly realistic early 1960’s landscape. The clothes, cars, settings. All of it transports us back to the time of vinyl albums and big steel sedans, without the political statements. They are masters at conjuring up past worlds.

Davis 4

Without a clear explanation, Llewyn gets into a car on its way to Chicago driven by Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and a burned-out jazz performer named Roland Turner (John Goodman). The exchanges between Llewyn and Roland are rich and hilarious. It’s a stranger’s perspective designed to provide Llewyn with validation that everything everyone is telling him is truth. There is a very large gap between the functioning world and Llewyn’s world, but he cannot see it. He is completely disconnected while being completely connected. Look for Goodman to get an Academy Award nomination for this small but powerful performance.

The film is beautifully crafted from top to bottom. Most of the technical aspects, despite being solid, take a back seat, overwhelmed by the acting and scene choice. The soundtrack was produced by the Coens with T. Bone Burnett who previously collaborated on Oh Brother, Where Art Thou. The music is the heart and soul of the film and if you listen closely and often enough, including dissecting the lyrics which were included by the filmmakers, you can fill in all those missing details.

Llewyn says, “If it’s not new and never get’s old, it’s a folk song.”

Davis Song List

Reviews of other Coen Brothers Films.

True Grit

Burn After Reading

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men Essay

A Serious Man

Photo Credits: Mike Zoss Productions

A Serious Man – Film Review

Walking into a Coen Brother’s film is a bit like going to a therapist for two hours but not knowing what neurosis you will be treated for. The only thing you can be sure of is there will be some messin’ with your head. That is at once the charm and challenge of their filmmaking. A Serious Man is the story of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a mathematics professor who has carefully calculated his life and on the verge of tenure, when his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick) asks for a divorce. There was already a lot of tension in the house, with a stoner son, a self-obsessed daughter and loser Uncle Arthur.

Larry is in shock and tries to reason things back together, but Judith and her new companion, Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), keep applying pressure and push him to visit “The Rabbi.” The guy for the job is Rabbi Marshak, but he’s much too busy to see anyone these days. So Larry settles for the junior Rabbi, who essentially tells him life is like a parking lot. Not a great help. He’s shuttled to a second Rabbi who takes more of his time and is of even less help.

In the meantime the story unfolds on a number of side plots involving the son, Danny (Aaron Wolff), who’s radio is confiscated in Hebrew school and contained the money he needed to pay off a drug purchase. Uncle Arthur is working on some landmark writing and attending single mixers, which turn out to be card games. One of Larry’s students realizes he is going to fail so he tries to buy a passing grade by leaving behind an envelope full of money. And if that wasn’t enough, the head of the tenure committee drops by to inform him that someone is writing anonymous letters besmirching Larry’s good name. It seems everyone wants a piece of Larry, even the Columbia Record Club who keep calling trying to collect on the latest selection of the month, Santana Abraxas.

The filmmaking craft is so smart. The Coens are masters of pacing and camera placement that advance the story and define characters in subtle but effective ways. One of Larry’s neighbors is a very scary man who over mows the property line week after week and then claims the extra real estate for his own. He also doesn’t think twice about taking his son out of school to go hunting. Signature Coen all the way. Landscape always plays an important role in Coen films. This picture is set in 1967 in rural midwest and they successfully re-create the time, space and sounds, with the possible exception of the school buses; they look a bit too modern. As with most of their films (No Country for Old Men excluded), music plays a significant role; lots of Jefferson Airplane air time and Carter Burwell’s repeating score.

The Gopnik’s are Jewish (you got that right?) and the Coens leverage, but never disparage their culture or faith. They do however have fun with it. Larry’s son smokes a joint just before his Bar Mitzhav and is stoned out of his mind while trying to recite a portion of the Shabbat. And there is a quick shot of the Rabbi holding up the Torah and exclaiming, “Jesus Christ” over its weight.

Larry gets one big break. While on the roof adjusting the TV antenna he notices Mrs. Samsky sunbathing in the nude next door. He visits her after the separation with Judith, and finds himself on her sofa smoking pot. But even that opportunity is vanquished by the misfit Arthur. One saving grace for the audience. Larry seems so much more entertaining when he’s high. But we are beginning to feel it’s total doom for Larry. At the end of the picture we find out for sure. Probably just as well he didn’t get in to see Marshak. Visit the official A Serious Man web site here.

I found myself thinking more about this film the second or third day after seeing it, but frankly, I’d rather go back and watch No Country for Old Men, Fargo or Miller’s Crossing. I think I’ll do that this weekend.

Photo Credit: Focus Features