Luck doesn’t seem to be compatible with Llewyn Davis. Nor does courtesy, commitment or caring. He says things which need to be said, he just manages to say them at the wrong times. We should hate him, but there’s a frankness, an unfiltered truth, in everything he does and says. We shouldn’t like him because he violates the social norms, but he somehow wrings sympathy from us.
In this respect, he’s like every other of the Coen brothers’ characters. Like Jeff Lebowski, he’s a ‘lowlife’-type, simply whiling his time away waiting for something big to present itself; like Barton Fink, he’s a man wrestling with his own creativeness. However, Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t have the same plot twists as all the other Coen films. In fact, it’s the most Coen-esque and least Coen-esque film they’ve ever produced. It has the dry humour, that beautiful (and brutal) honesty, interesting, niched American characters, dark corduroys and clouded blues; but no murder, no sudden plot twist. Like its protagonist, it leisurely goes about its business, dabbling in drama and comedy whilst finding its rhythm in folk music.
Perhaps, for this reason, it is one of the greatest of the Coen brothers’ films. It is raw, stripped back of any character fluffing. It avoids the trap of expositional dialogue to craft a story stuffed with intrigue with a few, solid characters. For a film so lacking in obvious exposition, it’s amazing how you end up feeling like the characters’ neighbours: you end wanting to try the Gorfeins’ famous moussaka, and the Gaslight feels like an odd second home--despite only appearing in a couple of scenes. The Coens project a chill cosiness in every scene, either through their neutral colours, soft lenses or just their damn cool characters. Basically, the Coens do what they do best: make things look v cool.
Oscar Isaac’s lead is fantastically cool too. His face always seems to rest between utter repulsion at every formality around him and complete lethargy, as if his natural hatred of others wears him out. His melodic voice steers through themes of suicide, hopelessness and solitude, and regardless of your opinion of folk music, there is something quietly beautiful about it. Isaac’s simultaneous passion and bitterness towards his own music is reminiscent of traditional tortured artist trope, but Isaac’s dry performance and the Coens’ screenplay remain as far away as possible from that dreaded ‘c-word’: cliché.
Of course, the film wouldn’t be complete without parodying the more ridiculous corners of the folk genre. This is where Justin Timberlake’s Jim and Adam Driver’s Al Cody come in, playing an excellently gaudy song about the space race in an apparent satire of the mainstream folk music at the time. The Gas Light, the hazy performance venue for the folk musicians, also plays host to other folk grotesques, including a cable-knit-jumpered barbershop quartet and a stringed-instrument-cradling woman who looks more suited to singing to the trees. The jazz industry receives its own fair share of parodying too, in the form of a lavishly-suited John Goodman playing the pseudo-intellectual jazz artist and Garrett Hedlund playing his aspiring beat poet protégée/chauffeur. Through these small characters and furnishes, the Coens build a wry, tight-lipped humour, one that occasionally rears its head in awkward situations and from time-to-time erupts in cuss-filled arguments.
But, for all of its contextual satire and bizarrely OTT-yet-subtle characters, the Coen brothers have created a story that is, ultimately, dismal. It’s a rather pessimistic view of life, with no moral awakening or reward. But why should films preach rags-to-riches stories that rarely happen? The Coens, in all of their unreal realism, have seemingly produced a film which tells the hardships of the music industry--of all creative industries--how they are, free from the optimistic, Oscar-award-winning propaganda that teaches people that they can do anything if they ‘try’. It’s thus a brave film, one that defiantly contradicts the hopeful narratives that are all too often adopted by Hollywood in order to give the average audience the escapism they flocked to the cinema to experience. From a cinema-goer who’s becoming increasingly fed-up with false, happy endings, here’s a toast to the Coen brothers and what shall hopefully be their next three decades of glorious filmmaking—keep it real, Duderinos.