Thursday, 23 January 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

15, 2014, Directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman

Pluck a film from the back catalogue of those brothers Coen and sure as anything it'll have a leading character oozing hapless self-obsessed schmuckery; a leading character who - in any other filmmaker's feature - would traipse around on-screen with an air of teeth-baring unlikability; someone that you'd walk past on the street and never ever look back at.

...and so, add Llewyn Davis, our titular guide through the 1961 New York folk scene, to that list (the same one including both Barton Fink and Jerry Lundegaard, just resting under Larry Gopnik). An immensely talented guitar-strumming musician attempting to make a break in a scene that offers him no breaks, Llewyn is fundamentally a sofa-dwelling layabout who makes no effort to appease those closest he has to friends.

With the loving attention-to-detail the Coen's are so adept at layering over every shot, their films live a life different to most others with Inside Llewyn Davis bearing no difference. Such is the conviction of their period setting, dabbled with the effortlessly fluent screenplay setting a tone that flows with no specific apex, at times it is saddening to recalibrate to the notion that you aren’t watching a biographical documentary, but a work of fiction inspired by real-life musician Dave van Ronk (which, if you didn’t know, makes for a world class soundtrack - songs come in full here).

That’s no negative. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel creates a lavishly bleak locale for the events that befall ole’ Llewyn and bleak has rarely looked so beautiful. Oscar Isaac embraces the opportunity to become somebody, breathing life into this character potentially having the worst week of his life. In between performing songs to a near-packed Gaslight CafĂ© (the basement coffee house situated in Greenwich Village, which famously introduced an unsuspecting world to Bob Dylan) and deciding whose sofa-space he can scrounge the following night, Llewyn’s half-hearted futile attempts to earn a record deal are dampened further by his unwitting theft of the hospitable Gorfein’s orange tabby cat and Jean, the girlfriend-of-a friend that he may or may not have knocked up (a deliciously frosty Carey Mulligan, churning Coen Brother dialogue like a pro and Justin Timberlake at home in woollen jumpers).

An offbeat middle section follows, with Davis hitching a ride to Chicago with a strangely menacing John Goodman (no surprises) as a travelling jazz musician and his beat poet driver (Garrett Hedlund).  Serving as an opportunity to make discoveries of his troubled past he wouldn’t dream on reflecting upon otherwise, the sequence also presents that now-classic Coen notion of presenting a sequence of importance that leaves as rapidly as it comes - introducing a scenario that departs before a resolution - capturing that unknowing essence of life: if we encounter a stranger on the street, what happens to them later on that evening will simply never be known.

But here is a Joel and Ethan film with a beating heart that pulsates a little harder than usual; in Davis, we’ve a protagonist that bit different to the others featured throughout Coen canon. Sure, his future remains as uncertain, yet you’re left with a tint of optimism that if returned to in years to come, Llewyn Davis could be a cat-owning, home-dwelling, sofa-lender all of his own. In what has been a milestone year for cinema, these brothers effortlessly show that you don’t need 3D glasses or tear-jerking subjects to provide cinemagoers with what is quite evidently yet another emotive masterclass in filmmaking.