Monday, December 9, 2013

"Inside Llewyn Davis" review

There's been a lot of talk these days about world building in movies. Filmmakers such as Guillermo Del Toro, Peter Jackson, James Cameron---they all create worlds with their blockbuster films. Whether it's middle earth in "The Hobbit" or Pandora in "Avatar," these filmmakers always get credit for how they meticulously craft these worlds. But when you think about it, The Coen Brothers have been creating worlds throughout their entire career. With a lot of their movies, it's not just the believable characters or the clothes they wear, nor is it how they talk. It's the look and feel of each of their films that really put them over the top, to the point where you can really get sucked into each little world the Coens create. Not all of their films are like this, but their best ones are. Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo, Big Lebowski---to name a few, these films have such distinct universes and it's the kind of thing the Coens have been mastering for the last thirty years. With "Inside Llewyn Davis," they've practically perfected it.

First, it starts with the cinematography. The Coens' longtime cinematographer, Roger Deakins, was likely too busy to be brought along for "Llewyn Davis" so the brothers hired Bruno Delbonnel instead. Delbonnel is perhaps best known for his work on films such as "Amelie" and "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," in "Llewyn Davis," he brings a very distinct and rather muted look. It's cinematography that doesn't call attention to itself, but rather, it helps to further authenticate this world. It makes sense as to why the New York Film Critics Circle singled out the film's cinematography when they announced their awards earlier this week. There have been many beautifully shot films this past year, but none serve the story as well as Delbonnel does with "Inside Llewyn Davis." It makes the cold weather in Greenwich Village seem even colder and the air inside the Gaslight Cafe even smokier. It adds so much depth to the proceedings and helps to make the fictional Llewyn Davis's story seem completely legit. There's a big difference between having a film look like it takes place in the '60s and making the '60s feel like the present as you are watching it. "Inside Llewyn Davis" does the latter.

It's 1961. One year before Bob Dylan released his debut album. Actually, 1961 is the year Dylan arrived in New York City and while he would later go ahead to become a big success and pioneer of the folk scene, our sorry hero, Llewyn Davis, is about fed up with it. He has no set residence, instead being forced to sleep on the couches of friends and acquaintances.

One thing that drives the drama of "Inside Llewyn Davis" forward is a bit of dramatic irony. Knowing what would later happen in the folk scene merely a few years later, it makes its sadder to watch this struggling artist appearing to be at the end of his rope. There's his former music partner who threw himself off the George Washington Bridge, there's his former lover who left him for Ohio, and his latest ex-girlfriend who doesn't want to speak to him. Oh, and she's pregnant, and she's demanding that he pays for the abortion due to the slight chance that the baby might be his.

Llewyn has gone solo, and he's paying the price for it. While he'll occasionally work as a session musician for some quick cash, it's his own music that he's passionate about. But, his latest album isn't selling. It's not that it's not selling well, it's not selling. Period. There's no question the guy has talent and potential, but he might just be a little ahead of his time. There's no money in the kind of music he's making, at least not yet. People want happy, novelty songs, not depressing, introspective songs. Llewyn Davis is at the right place but at the wrong time. You want to see him succeed, you want to see him make it, but after reaching dead end after dead end, you can't blame him for wanting to quit.

And that's really all what the film is asking for, empathy. Llewyn is not a perfect guy, his own stubborness is often what does him in. The Coens aren't asking you to feel sorry for him, as they never do with their characters. They just want you to understand him. Understand his plight, his situation. They're simply asking you to live with this guy for two hours and live in this insulated world of Greenwich Village, NY back in 1961, and understand the difficulties these artists went through.

The film has many humorous moments and they're all strictly character moments. The most broadly humorous moments in the film has to do with the cat (or cats) that Llewyn is forced to take care of. There are two golden-furred cats in the film: one that belongs to the Gorfeins (the parents of Llewyn's former partner) and another that's a stray cat. At one point, having lost the Gorfein's cat, Llewyn mistakenly replaces their cat with the stray. Once the Gorfeins realize it's not theirs, he winds up being stuck with this cat, and ultimately has to decide whether to keep it or leave it behind. The decision Llewyn makes here has heavy thematic implications, especially when he eventually returns to the Gorfeins and finds that their cat has found its way back home.

What struck me the most about "Inside Llewyn Davis" is this recurring theme of deja vu. The film opens and closes with the same moments, of Llewyn singing at the Gaslight Cafe then later getting beaten up in an alleyway. For a moment there, these two scenes actually seemed slightly different from each other and I think what the Coens are saying here is that they might as well be. The scene is a microcosm of what Llewyn has been going through since he began his music career: whenever there seems to be a sliver of hope, life winds up kicking him in the face. There are many other moments in "Llewyn Davis" that have elements of deja vu, such as Llewyn once again sleeping on the Gorfein's couch, or the Gorfeins inviting him over for dinner twice and introducing him to two different sets of guests, both eager to try one of Lillian's "famous meals."  Another, bigger example of deja vu would be his most recent ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) demanding that Llewyn pay for her abortion. This is two years after Llewyn dealt with a similar situation with a previous ex-girlfriend. It just appears that Llewyn keeps going through the same motions, the same mistakes, with no end in sight.

Now, admittedly, it can be difficult to watch a likable character such as Llewyn have such bad luck. I don't think the Coens are being cruel, but are merely pointing out that Bob Dylan's success was such a one-in-a-million shot. Sure, he wound up being one of the greatest songwriters of our time, but who knows how many Bob Dylans there were in Greenwich village that wound up having Llewyn's fate?

So much of the film relies on the talents of Oscar Isaac, who plays the title character. Isaac plays Llewyn Davis with the perfect touch. He allows the character to be both flawed and incredibly watchable. I could've watched Llewyn Davis's unlucky adventures forever, except maybe when he's driving to Chicago and back. That's really the only moment of the film that kind of dragged for me and I wish more was done with the characters played by Garrett Hedlund and John Goodman, but that's a very minor complaint. It was still fun to take a ride with John Goodman's character, Roland, even if he's on screen a lot less than I expected. Plus, the Chicago sequence can also symbolize just how long, winding, and empty Llewyn's life has been as a musician and how it seems to be going nowhere.

Another standout in the film is Carey Mulligan, who plays Jean, Llewyn's former girlfriend. She has nothing but contempt for Llewyn and she winds up having some of the funniest lines in the film. Mulligan really goes all out, to the urging of the Coens, making Jean simultaneously mean-spirited and adorable. I don't always love Carey Mulligan, but this film reminded me just how great of an actress she can be. She manages to give Jean enough layers, making her believably angry at Llewyn, instead of merely playing up the mean-ness for laughs.

"Inside Llewyn Davis" is pretty much a must-see for anyone who's ever been a struggling artist, or really, anyone who's ever struggled. It's a very relatable film on many levels, despite how specific the time period is. It manages to give you a very authentic glimpse of the life of a folk musician in the early '60s, while also being a careful examination of the hardships people have to go through while trying to reach the next stage of life. In Llewyn's case, he could very well wind up giving up his dream. But the film doesn't really give him any other viable life options either. He's stuck. For how long, who knows? But it was a pleasure getting to know him, nonetheless. When Llewyn Davis sings, he's not asking for help, he just wants a little empathy. And perhaps, a couple of dollars... and a couch to sleep on if it's not too much trouble. This is one of the year's best films, and a movie that begs to be seen more than once. The Coen brothers have created a world that is definitely worth revisiting.

Grade: A

No comments: