Inside Llewyn Davis (2014)

Inside Llewyn Davis (2014)

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"Yes, this is a cat. What of it?"
“Yes, this is a cat. What of it?”

Twitter Plot Summary: The journey of folk singer Llewyn Davis as he tries to get his big break in 1961 Greenwich.

Five Point Summary:

1. That darn cat.
2. Relationship woes.
3. John Goodman!
4. Back to the drawing board?
5. Full circle.

I may have said this before, but I’m quite the fan of the Coen Brothers and their movies. Thus far in my journey through their back catalogue I have yet to experience a dud, although I have yet to see their remake of The Ladykillers so I’ll reserve judgement until that’s out of the way. In any case, I was keen to make a visit to the cinema to see their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, a film about the titular character and his efforts to make it as a folk artist in 1961, just ahead of Bob Dylan’s appearance on the scene. The problem here is that, whilst undoubtedly talented to a degree, he never manages to find his break, often being told there’s no money in him or his music and that he should perform with a stage partner if he wants to get anywhere. And of course the problem there is that Llewyn had a partner but is now trying to branch off as a solo artist.

Oscar Isaac is perfect in the role of Llewyn, melancholic and up against the world, he moves from place to place and sofa to sofa as he tries to make his folk singing career work out. At the same time, he’s not making much in terms of money, and his sister thinks he should go back to the navy and re-enlist. There’s plenty of depth to his performance, no naval-based pun intended, despite the surface appearance. Giving strong supporting performances are Carey Mulligan as Jean, the girlfriend of Justin Timberlake’s Jim – a man who has the most severely angled beard I think I have ever seen. John Goodman shows up (obviously) with an equally strange hairdo and spends most of his time asleep in the back of the car as Llewyn and Garrett Hedlund’s near mute but effortlessly cool Johnny Five take a road trip to Chicago. Then there’s the Gorfein’s cat, whose name I will not reveal as it’s integral to the plot, but suffice to say it works wonderfully as a metaphor. Again, I’m not going to say what, you’ll have to work that one out for yourself. Suffice to say it’s a beatifully simple idea and adds another layer of depth to Llewyn’s story. Typically, the Coens don’t tie up every narrative thread or loose end neatly, nor is it absolutely necessary. In many ways their narrative structure follows real life, where nothing gets a satisfactory conclusion.

Goodman's test of strength routine hadn't worked out as planned.
Goodman’s test of strength routine hadn’t worked out as planned.

The cinematography is equally superb, colours are washed out and slightly drab, yet has an almost ethereal quality. It’s very distinct, let’s put it that way. Also choosing to shoot the film in 1.85 aspect ratio gives it a slightly squeezed look which befits Llewyn’s position if not the time the film is set in. It was also interesting to discover that all of the singing is performed live rather than being lip-synched, which adds yet another layer of depth to the performances. Seriously, you could spend forever trying to unravel all of the messages littered around a Coen Brothers movie, and the best part is they will neither confirm or deny that those messages exist. You take out what you will, I guess.

There are plenty of thematic and stylistic links to the Coen Brother’s earlier films, the most obvious of which is to O Brother Where Art Thou as music also played an integral part to that film’s narrative. The same applies here, each song heard is played out in full, and despite not being a huge fan of folk music I would gladly listen to the soundtrack on loop until my ears bled. In terms of narrative the songs are very carefully chosen – Llewyn’s opening Hang Me, Oh Hang Me is a glimpse into the man’s soul and helps drive the story forward. Indeed, the only time that we really get to see inside Llewyn’s mind and get a sense of how he really feels is through his music, his performances the only time he ever opens up. The likes of Fare Thee Well and The Shoals of Herring are perfect examples, the former being the song he used to perform with his folk partner before said partner decided to jump off the George Washington Bridge (apparently, that’s the wrong bridge to jump off), and the latter sang to emotive effect in front of his near-catatonic father. There’s nothing in the movie rulebook that says a character’s inner thoughts and emotional state can’t be conveyed by music, and if there was I would disavow it immediately. It’s intelligent storytelling at its finest.

There are other little visual links to their earlier work, but the most notable of which are the “Serious Man” aspect of Llewyn himself, and the driving sequences which owe a lot to the Coen’s first film, Blood Simple. There, much like Inside Llewyn Davis, much is said at the subtextual level and through images. Whilst this isn’t anywhere close to being as dialogue light as Blood Simple, Inside Llewyn Davis still has that element included in its story. Quite frankly it’s a marvel from one of cinema’s most notable cinematic writer/director pairings, and it’s a real pity that it wasn’t picked up for an Oscar love.

Score: 5/5

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