Joel and Ethan Coen are certainly among the most consistently brilliant filmmakers in the world. They repeatedly produce intelligent, sophisticated, personal and highly likable films. As such, I find myself going into the cinema with not only high expectations, but an acknowledgeable soft spot for the film before its even begun, adopting my most forgiving viewing stance.
Llewyn Davis is a struggling folk singer whose musical partner has recently committed suicide, leaving him in a perpetual state of mourning and self pity as he couch hops around a beautifully nostalgic Greenwich Village in 1961, struggling to earn enough money to survive the cold winter.
Llewyn’s antipathy towards almost everyone and everything might be initially received unsympathetically by a less forgiving audience, particularly as this façade never breaks throughout the film. Rather than a witnessing a typical Hollywood-esque mental breakdown to let us into Llewyn’s world – Llewyn isn’t the type to lay on a psychiatrist’s chaise longue – the Coen’s cleverly portray the reasoning behind Llewyn’s discontent through the inspired cyclical nature of the narrative.
Towards the end of the film, events begin to repeat themselves: as he had done at the beginning of the film Llewyn heckles an innocent performer at a small music venue, performs a gig there the next night, and is the attacked in the alleyway due to his disorderly behaviour the first night. These events, and Llewyn’s complex and largely ambiguous relationships to various characters in the film, had appeared at first to be superficial, but having shared his hardships and frustrations – learning about the death of his partner and other personal and professional failures – these relationships and character traits become enriched and paint a more delicate and intriguing picture. There is no Hollywood character exposition, merely subtle glimpses at the underlying man behind the music, such is the charm of the film.
This cycling plot serves to not only explain Llewyn’s unwillingness to confront a future that would mean coming to terms with his partner’s death, but also the unfortunate realities of show business and as such the troublesome nature and false promise of the ideological American Dream.
The film is filled with characteristically quirky characters whose apparent lack of depth could be mistakenly perceived as being solely for comedic purposes. Whilst this is certainly a vehicle for the Coen’s sense of humour, the pithy one-liners and perfectly sculpted caricatures are perhaps instead a manifestation of how Llewyn egotistically views the outside world, his lack of care about the problems of these other characters reduces them to marginal concern in the narrative.
It won’t be for everyone, the pace is particularly slow through the middle of the film, and the protagonist remains impenetrable throughout. But, as a lenient Coen-viewer, rather than being a filmmaking faux pas, I prefer to assume that the Coen brothers chose to stay true to Llewyn’s own insistence of the importance of ‘mystique’ in show business. Like his exquisitely sorrowful folk songs, Llewyn is presented in a suitably cryptic manner so as to refuse its audience any real glimpse Inside Llewyn Davis. Whether this is a strength or a weakness in the film will undoubtedly divide audiences.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is released in UK cinemas by StudioCanal, Certificate 15.