Sunday, December 29, 2013

Film Review - Inside Llewyn Davis

Opening with a simple subtitle The Gaslight 1961, then shifting to a stage with one chair a solitary spotlight and secondary light from a window stage right we meet Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) on stage singing a tune into a gleaming silver microphone. The song is melodic slow and hushed.  A warm round of applause erupts from the audience seated at tables around the front of the stage. Davis heads to the bar for congratulations from the bar owner, then off into the night.

He begins his couch serving routine at the Gorfein's Upper West side residence. He wakes up to an empty residence, picks up an unexpected companion for his subway trip back downtown to the village nodding off as the stations race by the windows of the train. Once downtown he finds an alternate route into the apartment of another regular resting place, leaves his companion heads out into the city.

Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen Brothers look at the early 60's Greenwich Village folk scene. The piece follows Davis over a one week period as he gigs at local clubs, crashes with friends all the while trying to get his music career going after a tragic incident that befell his musical partner. However as is typical in a Coen Brothers film he is not a character that warms easily to the audience. He has a cavalier attitude towards women, is totally unsupportive of fellow acts, is not a good role model for his young nephew and generally mean to cruel to those that give him a place to stay.

The film is expertly presented. The opening subway trip downtown that focuses on the station signs is a visual marvel. They rush by the car window just slow enough to do a street countdown from the 130's through to Pennsylvania Station and on to the low numbers of the downtown. The Brothers  supply an abundance of quickly characters. The top among these are Llewyn's New York agent and his assistant.  A close second are his two travel companion on his trip to Chicago in search of a record deal, a gig and potentially new management.

The Coen's have a habit of torturing their lead characters and Llewyn does not escape that fate.  All the way through the film it appears that he is on the cusp of success. He has a very strong performance at the opening of the film, has a studio gig on a track that may go somewhere but he makes a decision to derail future rewards. In Chicago he performs for a real record executive Bud Grossman  (F. Murray Abraham) puts his every emotion into the performance but does not receive the response he expects.

Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel presents a piece so dreary and washed out it almost appears that the viewer is watching a black and white film. The narrative covers a week in February 1961 with New York and Chicago as two main locations therefore the entire production is set in northern winter climate. The lack of colour also punctuates the meagre existence of the lead character.  He does not have a proper winter coat nor does he have proper gloves. The greys and water based blues also are predominant for most of the Jean (Carey Mulligan ) scenes. She is often clad in black beatnik attire and the lack of colour from the lens makes her look very pale. Her appearance, plus her constant anger towards Llewyn for the way he acts towards her and everyone around him adds to the dreary and sadness of the film.

The star of the film is the traditional folk songs.  The Haunting Hang Me O Hang Me at the start of the film with the refrain Wouldn't Mind the Hanging but the Laying in the grave so long, poor boy. Shows that audience that Davis has some talent but success often comes down to timing, good fortune or circumstance. Davis performs the song on stage with a stool and his guitar with a silver mike filling the front of the screen and two great beams of light covering him on stage. The second is the comical Please Mr. Kennedy featuring Justin Timberlake as Jean's partner Jim plus Adam Driver from Girl's fame as Al Cody inserting the comical drops. The third The Death of Queen Jane played for at the above mentioned pop audition in Chicago.  The last of the notable full length performance in the film is a standout performance of Fare Thee Well, Dink's Song. Issac gets the chord sequence dead on along with the rise and fall of his voice as he delivers the tune with the assistance of Marcus Mumford.

Oscar Issac is superb in the title role. He is dealing with the death of his former singing partner that everyone in his circle appears to love.  He is mean to everyone but Issac is able to bring across that Llewyn is not all bad. He builds an odd bond with the Gorfein's cat aptly named Ulysses that he at first seems to be stuck with then grows to want to do the right thing by. As noted before Issac is a former musician and had the right look for the part along with the ability to perform the songs required. There was a real chance that the film would not have been made if they Coen's were not able to find someone that looked the part and could play the music. Carey Mulligan is strong in a small role as Jean Llewyn former romantic interest who is now partnered with Jim. She appears to have one beat white hot anger to Llewyn but does enquire often making sure he has somewhere to stay and helps to get him on the roster at the Gaslight.  John Goodman as Ronald Turner and Garrett Hedlund as Johnny Five are perfect Coen characters that accompany Llewyn on the road trip to Chicago. Goodman's Turner shines in an exchange with Llewyn discussing the merits of Jazz over Folk music centering on how Folk music is only based on three chords. Johnny Five is basically mute, handles most of the driving but has one memorable moment reacting to a request for a cigarette from Llewyn.

Inside Llewyn Davis, is sad, bleak and lacks a particular thematic thread. It is a different sort of feature that stands out as a piece that moviegoers will not as one is ofter able to do predict where the narrative is going to head next. After some recent bigger productions this film returns the Brother to stories and characters consistent with their late nineties roots.  It is a film that I can highly recommend and will be found near the top of many a year end movie watchers list.

**** out of 4

Inside llewyn David | Ethan & Joel Coen | U.S.A. | 2012| 105 Minutes.

Tags: Folk Music, Greenwich Village, Early 60's, New York Subway, Upper West Side, Felines.

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