Sunday 13 January 2019

From the archive: "Inside Llewyn Davis"

Joel and Ethan Coen excel whenever they stop to investigate the perimeters of the worlds they’ve sketched. Blood Simple, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo: all these have their own rules and gatekeepers, their own governing fates, yet too many recent Coen films have seemed inchoate or ill-formed, scattering their better ideas in the dash to the next project. The good news with Inside Llewyn Davis is that the Coens have locked all these details down: it is at once their most complete picture for some while, and their most unreservedly pleasurable, despite the many miseries loaded onto its mopey protagonist.

The world here is the wintry Greenwich Village of the early 1960s, a pokily boho place of overweight supers manning incredibly narrow corridors; its inhabitants shuffle damp-footed between cave-like venues and mom-and-pop recording enterprises, trailing worn winter coats that can’t really insulate their souls. One early, whirlwind tour comes care of a fugitive cat; his temporary keeper, the eponymous Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), is a down-on-his-luck folk singer reduced to couch-surfing after his recording partner’s suicide.

Though the Coens take the music seriously – rehiring O Brother, Where Art Thou? cohort T-Bone Burnett to produce another supremely evocative set of original songs – they treat the idea of folk circa 1961 as a joke: the talk is of Elvis, and the Beatles are but a year or so away. A figure resembling a young Robert Zimmerman pops up in one club scene, but folk as presented here is a marginal concern: that of sad-sacks scraping a modest existence trilling decidedly antiquated laments. (As one gatekeeper observes: “I don’t see a lot of money here.”)

If the subject is rootless drift – and the presence of two cast members of TV’s Girls, the show that has elevated Manhattan drift to an artform, suggests it is – the film is nevertheless anchored by its words and music: it may well become the first Coen movie since Lebowski people bother to quote from, stocked deep as it is with choice phrases and names which have clearly been pored over.

The actors roll this script round their mouths like tobacco, and everybody looks the part: Justin Timberlake is again adroitly deployed as folk’s golden boy, clearly destined for brighter, more corporate things, while an on-the-road diversion, reaching out to Beat culture, finds Llewyn sharing a car with John Goodman, on engaged form as a Tom Parker-like impresario with bowel trouble and an amusing line in industry anecdotes.

Yet none of these funny bitparts obscure Isaac’s skilful portrait of fraying desperation, or our sense that Llewyn Davis is getting too old to be touting round a guitar case holding nothing but threadbare dreams. The younger Coens might have been indifferent to this character’s fate, but there’s a new compassion here that immediately elevates the film above the brothers’ snarkier projects. They’ve realised Llewyn isn’t so far removed from them: a storyteller trying to craft something on the fringes of a particular scene. (There are multiple ways of understanding that title.)

This core warmth prevents the film from drifting unnecessarily: Llewyn might not recognise as much, but his originators dangle the possibility that he could have a career if he only applied himself that bit more, just as they did and have. In doing so, this wistful, surprising creation myth presents itself as the Coens’ very own Ed Wood: an expression of fraternal sympathy for a figure who’s been out in the cold for too long, to be savoured by anybody who’s ever had to curl up on another’s sofa in pursuit of whatever they want, love and need to do.

(MovieMail, January 2014)

Inside Llewyn Davis screens on Channel 4 tonight at 1am.

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