by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
The persistent risk, creativity and evolution of the Coen Brothers as filmmakers and storytellers shouldn’t be underestimated. They hit the ground running with 1984′s “Blood Simple,” and have churned out 21 original films since then, as well as a fair amount of work on other people’s movies. Not everything that the Coens put out is great, especially their broad period in the early 2000s, but most of their work ranks among the best of the past 30 years of cinema. Their latest, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is one of their quieter outings, though certainly one for the “good” column.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” stars Oscar Isaac as the titular folk singer, a consummate wanderer in and around New York City in 1961. For the music geeks out there, that particular year should stand out, especially as it pertains to the folk explosion of the era. ’61 was the year when Bob Dylan came to New York to solemnly take up the mantel of ailing folk legend Woody Guthrie and start recording his self-titled debut.
But the Coens’ Llewyn Davis is no Bob Dylan, a fact that they establish in a variety of ways throughout the film, from subtle character moments to a particularly on-the-nose nod late in the film. Davis is based loosely on a real folkie named Dave Van Ronk, a loner, agitator and visionary, in his own right, who never quite managed the crossover appeal of his top-performing contemporaries.
Davis is an especially curdled take on the Van Ronk folk outsider concept with depressing alternate-history Simon and Garfunkel thrown in for good measure. We spend approximately one week with him in an eventful winter; some indeterminate time in the recent past, his friend and recording partner committed suicide, leaving Davis reeling and deeply resistant to anything resembling success. How we experience his varsity-level bad decision exercises depends entirely on how much sympathy the Coens grant or remove from him.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” has three distinct segments, making a cinematic sandwich of his cyclical life in New York, and a surreal intermezzo on the road to Chicago. It’s the middle bit that will look the most familiar to fans of the Coen Brothers, especially considering the scene-stealing appearance of Coen stable and MVP John Goodman as a preternaturally crass jazzman named Roland. Davis is ostensibly on a ride-share to Chicago on a music career long shot, but it becomes clear within moments that he’s actually in the kind of existential hell that the Coens love. It’s here where the goodwill that a tender, conflicted Davis accumulated in New York starts to go south, and his mostly self-imposed isolation manifests.
Viewers will also devote an inordinate amount of time to Davis’s interactions with an orange cat that, intentional or not, becomes a totem for the protagonist’s moral and personal failings. According to one of the Coen Brothers’ recent and characteristically opaque interviews, the cat was a late addition designed mostly to drive some plot, but is one of the best cinematic uses of a feline in history. Some of the film’s best images, jokes and dramatic moments involve the cat directly, and things probably wouldn’t work without it.
This film is also one of the most music-driven movies that the Coens have done in a while. Music features prominently in a lot of their films, most notably in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” “Inside Llewyn Davis” does a good job of capturing the touchstones of the folk scene, without resorting to a greatest hits mentality, from Davis’s thoroughly non-commercial ballads to the goofy novelty song penned by the bearded square played by a well used Justin Timberlake. Still, it’s doubtful that “Inside Llewyn Davis” will inspire a folk revival the way “O Brother” gave an unexpected boost to bluegrass, not that folk has been absent from our Fleet-Fox-ified airwaves as of late.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” isn’t one of 2013/early 2014′s must-see films, Cannes Grand Prix notwithstanding, but it’s a solid production that will please Coen Brothers fans without being impenetrable for newcomers to that strange oeuvre. It’s an intimate and emotionally genuine movie that isn’t aiming for high prestige or to anoint any new stars, though Oscar Isaac is still one of the most vital screen presences that the Coens have ever featured.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is currently playing at the Harvard Exit Theatre, located at 807 East Roy Street.