Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen


Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen Brothers at their most Coen-esque. Lest this be interpreted as a criticism, bear in mind that their formula is an almost sure-fire bet with each new film. Inside Llewyn Davis sees American cinema’s most interesting siblings tread that fine line between drama and comedy with panache once more. It boasts a self-loathing depressive male lead, fascinating side characters and T-Bone Burnett supervising a marvellous soundtrack. It’s nothing new, but it is something wonderful all the same.

Based on folk legend Dave Van Ronk, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a Coen-esque male in the mould of Walter Sobchak, Jerry Lundergaard and Larry Gopnik. Like these poor souls, he is bearing the brunt of some life choices that are on the cusp of turning sour. He’s a struggling folk singer in 1961 New York. Kennedy is eyeing up the moon for colonisation, but Bob Dylan has yet to make it big. For America, as for Llewyn, there is potential for greatness on the way, provided the Robert Zimmermans or Lee Oswalds of this world don’t get in the way. He plugs away at dingy Brooklyn bars and couch-surfs where he can. In a vein similarly explored by many directors, from Jim Jarmusch to Bruce Robinson, the aspiring artist constantly courts the bum’s rush. Money and opportunities are in short supply, and admirers and acquaintances can’t guarantee a place to stay. Among those acquaintances are former girlfriend Jean (a brilliantly sweary Carey Mulligan) and her squeaky-clean singer-songwriter hubby Jim (Justin Timberlake).

Driven as much by a need to prove others wrong as by his artistic aspirations, Llewyn sets his sights on performing at the Gate of Horn folk club in Chicago, which is overseen by producer Les Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). Before he can get to Chicago, Llewyn has issues to sort. First among those issues, Jean is pregnant with Llewyn’s child and wants him to stump up for an abortion. It’s all a touch heavy, but leave it to the Coens to infuse proceedings with a comedic touch. Indeed, that comedic touch is seriously needed here, as sympathetic characters are practically nil. A lot of Llewyn’s problems are due to his abrasive nature; whether drunkenly heckling another musician or insulting the hosts and guests at a dinner party, he’s not the most endearing of chaps. Perhaps Mulligan’s Jean has a point; she constantly declares he’s an asshole. The only thing that saves the character from all-out unlikeability is Isaac, whose turn is positively star-making. Like William H. Macy in Fargo or John Goodman in The Big Lebowski, Isaac infuses Llewyn with a humanity to counter the venom. His frustration is excessive, but recognisable. His manager is getting no gigs, his album (from which the film gets its title) isn’t selling and that nasal-sounding fellow at the club is proving more popular; who wouldn’t vent? Screams and resignation feel like they’re never too far away, but Issac’s restraint keeps us on side.

When Llewyn looks for a way to Chicago, he hitches with jazz musician Turner (the aforementioned Mr. Goodman, brilliantly sour) and his chauffeur, a beat poet named Johnny Five played by Garret Hedlund (making an impact despite little-to-no dialogue). Being a Coen brothers film, their trip has no preordained outcome, but having these characters along for the ride keeps it interesting. From the abusive Turner (When not poking Llewyn with his walking stick, he subjects him to a barrage of insults) to Llewyn’s older academic friends the Gorfeins (plus their cat, a frequent scene-stealer), Inside Llewyn Davis offers another selection of flavoursome side characters, small in screentime but big in memorability. They’re all swaddled in a marvellous folk soundtrack, with tunes hummable and relatable. If you’re not moved by Llewyn’s rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, you’ll be tapping your feet to “Please Mr. Kennedy” (performed by Isaac, Timberlake and Adam Driver, whose utterances of the words ‘outer’ and ‘space’ make him sound like he came from there).

Soundtrack and setting aside (The cold, desaturated blues of ‘60s Greenwich Village come courtesy of DP Bruno Delbonnel), there’s not a lot new to Llewyn’s pursuits within the context of the Coens’ oeuvre. Maladjusted male malcontents on episodic journeys to possible redemption is the siblings’ bread and butter. Yet when the tale is made with such care and vim, such grumbles are moot. With heart and laughs, Inside Llewyn Davis is another shining entry in the Coens’ already gilded repertoire.


Review: Barton Fink (1991)

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen


imageIt is easy to forget, in the post-No Country For Old Men haze, that there was a time when the Coen brothers weren’t the toast of the Academy. They were once a pair of outsiders looking in; they were armed with a surrealist eye, a quick wit and a healthy disdain for the Hollywood process. That disdain was best expressed in their 1991 Palme d’Or winner Barton Fink, a wonderful curio which looks and feels like a kitschy little flick before dovetailing into unexpectedly dark terrain.

The Coen’s cynicism is embodied in the idealist pile of neuroses that is the character of Barton Fink (John Tuturro), a playwright who is the hottest thing on the NY stage scene. Fink seeks to create a ‘theatre of the proletariat’, but that idealism is about to be swamped by an offer from a Hollywood studio to write a wrestling picture. Fink is a substitute for the Coens, as evidenced by his constant worry and the fact that (refreshingly) he does not allow himself to be corrupted by Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), the over-enthusiastic head of Capitol Pictures, an amalgam/pastiche of Selznick and Weinstein. The Coens doubtlessly had a lot of experiences to infuse in the character of Fink, and Tuturro makes for a likeably worried mensch. He’s surrounded by an esoteric ensemble, including Lerner (energetic), John Goodman (perky), Judy Davis (rigid) and John Mahoney (drunk).

Events barrel along until about the halfway point, when Barton Fink takes an eerie and bloody turn. As the tale of the everyman writer turns into a murder mystery, the events become more compelling and bizarre. The Coens have created the epitome of the writer in Fink, a bemused observer of events to be potentially filtered into art. In this example, he’s just getting a little too close to the action. The action really comes in this darker second half, meaning the first half of the film is a little too slow-burn, but it allows us time to wallow in the beautiful version of 1940s LA the Coens present. Barton’s hotel is a vaguely creepy art deco nightmare, whilst DP Roger Deakins shines the California sunshine constantly and brightly.

Barton Fink refuses to conform; it starts happily, slowly and easy to digest. Then, once the viewer is settled, it morphs into darkness and true cynicism. Expect no easy answers, no compromises and no lack of narrative and thematic meat to chew on. Expect the Coens at their most Coen-esque.

Review: True Grit (2010)

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen



The Duke or the Dude? Not as tough a choice as you might think.

Rooster Cogburn, one of John Wayne’s most iconic roles, is reinterpreted by Jeff Bridges (a.k.a. the coolest man in Hollywood) in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. It should be stressed that True Grit is not a remake of Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film, but a re-adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel. However, the plot is inevitably the same. The drunken marshall Cogburn is recruited by headstrong teen Mattie Ross (Hailie Steinfeld) to find Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), her father’s killer. Also on Chaney’s trail is Matt Damon’s Texas ranger LaBoeuf. This trepidatious triumvirate head off in pursuit of their quarry, unsure of their route and unsure of each other.

This material seems tailor-made for the Coens. Whilst the original True Grit made the original trio (Wayne, Kim Darby and Glen Campbell) likeable and somehow workable, the Coens focus on the awkward and silly nature of this ramshackle group. John Wayne’s bedtime stories for Kim Darby are now the drunken ramblings of a properly pickled Cogburn; meanwhile, the once dashing LaBoeuf is now egotistical and caddish. Not only does this approach allow the Coens to maintain their absurdist sense of humour, but it also stays true to the tone of Portis’ novel. The 1969 film lacked edge; in this version, True Grit actually has grit! The threat of violence is palpable throughout, whilst Coen regulars DP Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell create a wild West thick with atmosphere. You can practically smell the sweat and gunpowder. It’s also a more accessible film than usual Coens fare, as they eschew both the intellectual melancholy of A Serious Man and the potentially anti-climactic ambiguity of No Country For Old Men. The Western as a genre is defined by its broad appeal, and the Coens know better than to tamper with such an established maxim.

Despite verging on the incomprehensible, Jeff Bridges makes the role of Rooster Cogburn his own. Investing more in the character than John Wayne, Cogburn 2.0 is a borderline tramp, looking and sounding less clean-cut than the Duke ever managed. Damon brings a goofy charm to the role of LaBoeuf. Josh Brolin does a lot with little screentime as Chaney, and Barry Pepper is deliciously mean as the bandit ‘Lucky’ Ned Pepper. Yet, even better than all of these is Steinfeld. Her ballsy, determined performance belies her youth, more than holding her own against even the Dude. A long career beckons.

In every aspect of its craft, True Grit is flawless. The writing is lyrical, the sights and sounds are beautiful and the acting is sublime. From gritty beginning to poignant conclusion, True Grit is a masterpiece.