A new Coen Brothers’ film is always something to be warmly anticipated. For decades Joel and Ethan have compiled a body of work that has managed to jump genres from Noir to Mob, from Police Procedural to Rom-com, from Bowling Movie to Musical – always maintaining the Coen stamp: a distinctive dark sense of observational humour, complimenting both comedy and tragedy. For a while it started to look like they were deliberately trying to knock off a different genre with each film they made and then that began to be harder to track as echoes from their previous films melted everything into a Coen Movie just being a Coen Movie.
Inside Llewyn Davis is set in the early 1960s Greenwich Village Folk Coffee bar scene in which the eponymous protagonist struggles to scrape together an artistic existence playing gigs for the tip basket and chasing his record company owner for record royalties that just haven’t come in. The character is a composite of a handful of singer-songwriters of the period, the Coens drawing from Dave Van Ronk’s The Mayor of MacDougal St and acknowledging him in the film’s title which references Van Ronk’s LP Inside Dave Van Ronk, but also referencing Phil Ochs and the odd shot of Llewyn reminiscent of the cover of Fred Neil’s Bleeker and MacDougal – the jacket upturned against the New York cold as the post gig singer lugs his guitar case through the village. Other real life acts such as Tom Paxton and the Clancey Brothers are also referenced not to mention the young Bob Dylan entering the stage as Llewyn leaves it.
Echoes of earlier Coen films filter into their latest: The folk music element and the film being a musical obviously brings to mind O Brother, Where art Thou? Llewyn’s story though is less a rural caper and more an urban drama of artistic sensibility, struggle and suffering. Llewyn as a character is somewhere between Barton Fink and A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik. Whereas Gopnik stoically suffers like Job and Barton struggles with writer’s block and The Industry while trying to communicate his genius through a Hollywood film-script, most of Llewyn Davis’ problems are of his own making. He is a purist who refuses to compromise, watching success appear to come to others less talented, while he manages to sabotage his own chances in a way that suggests a fear of developing.
The central theme of the film is one of things not quite coming to fruition, and of disappointment. The name Llewyn itself seems like a disappointing version of Llewellyn. This theme is something that the filmmakers have fun with and some of the film’s funniest moments come from this. Unfortunately, by being clever and deliberately setting up scenarios to fizzle out or not take their expected course, the film itself is in danger of being a disappointment. While Oscar Isaac plays the role brilliantly, the central character of the film is pretty hard to love – he’s cantankerous, annoyingly self-righteous, severely discourteous, sponges off others, and is reluctant to acknowledge everything others do for him to try to help him along. Whereas most of the Coens’ other unlikable characters have been portrayed through a slightly heightened lens that gives the character a cult charm, Llewyn is shot pretty much through straight drama, with toned down situations – leaving him, at times, one of the coldest of Coen characters and, at other times, the saddest. The truth is that he is a jerk who you hope will do well but then does everything in his power to blow it.
That is not to say that there is not any comedy in the film, nor that it is a cold film. The warmth comes through in the musical performances and a brilliantly written script that shows glimpses of sweetness at the heart of Davis’ relationship with Carey Mulligan’s folk scene contemporary, Jean. The comedy is provided by performances by Justin Timberlake and John Goodman, (whose snooty jazz musician, at one point seems to be chanelling Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil). Cinematic nods to New York films come in a Woody Allen-esque dinner scene, an Annie Hall-esque stroll through Washington Square and a rescued cat which, amongst other things, is reminiscent of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
With Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen have delivered a film that fits well with their remarkable body of work. While on first viewing it may seem disappointing and the central character hard to love, it is a fool that would not trust that a Coen Brothers’ film will grow with repeated viewings. Most fans of their films come to each new one with high expectations and often it is a Coen film that deliberately chooses to confound those expectations that grows a following. On further viewings Inside Llewyn Davis is very unlikely to disappoint the way it is – perhaps – slightly supposed to on first viewing. I have no doubt that the Coens have made the film they set out to make and that in Llewyn Davis, underneath all of his total jerk exterior, they have perhaps created their most human character.
Also available is the published screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen for Inside Llewyn Davis from Faber and Faber, including an introduction on the Greenwich Village Folk Scene in which the film is set, from Elijah Wald and a conversation with T-Bone Burnett on the film’s use of music.