What has interested me the most about the latest film from the great writer/director duo Joel and Ethan Coen is their unique focus on such a genuine character and his bizarre series of misadventures. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a 1960’s New York City Greenwich Village folk musician who lives and breathes his art (it is all he has, after all), yet a man that isn’t personable enough and lacks the ability to connect to people to be a success. He also seems to have lost the courage to compromise, and given the opportunity to build something economically substantial with his talents, he inexplicably remains content to rough it alone through the unforgiving winter. We see pieces of Llewyn’s soul disappearing as he clings his coat to his chest, drains icy water out of his shoes, laments his recent news and what his friends will say when they learn he has lost their pet.
Llewyn is a middling solo act. His songs are soulful and sung with passion, but they are never going to be hits. His immediate attention is directed toward day-to-day survival, settling for the same lowly gigs, taking advantage of the couches and supplies of a small rotation of sympathetic local acquaintances. Llewyn achieved a quiet musical success with a partner, but this ended in tragedy. A solo record has been failing to sell and has been ignored by a Chicago producer his inept manager claims to have sent one to. Llewyn is experiencing a dumping of bad luck. The guy needs a break, yet isn’t doing himself any favors in earning one.
His friends Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) have built a promising career through their couple act. They attract guest singers, while Llewyn rejects the notion of singing with others, unless he is desperate. Like in A Serious Man (2009) the tide of ill fortune is conveyed in a convincing manner. Set over the course of a week, the inexplicable turns of events could be the result of bad karma, but as we begin to learn more about Llewyn we realize he is as much to blame.
This is a film of crossroads – many ‘what would have happened if?’ questions. Would the outcome of Llewyn’s story been the same if just one element was changed? It is unlikely. He had to sign over royalties to ‘Please Mr President’ because he needed the money. His escape from folk music was never going to be easy, because he’s not a man who thinks much about the road ahead. When asked this question by Jean he believes she is talking about the existence of flying cars and hotels on the moon, not plans or aspirations. The obstacles he encounters ultimately stem from his own attitude. The Coen Brothers are always reinventing themselves, delving into new genre territory and compromising their style for the sake of their art form, which raises an interesting parallel.
Thinking back over the film - another look now seems necessary - there are many subtle nuances, hidden meanings and strange tangents adopted by the Coens. Llewyn’s journey to Chicago with a Beat poet (Garret Hedlund) and a dispiriting jazz musician (John Goodman) is worthy of its own discussion while we learn so much about the folk music scene through a small interlude with Adam Driver’s down-to-earth, similarly struggling Al Cody. Llewyn is an urban scavenger who seeks out scraps of nutrition and a porch to lay low, frustrating by his mounting personal problems. He is enclosed in his own small world within the big city. He doesn’t take the lead of his troublemaking feline companion though, fleeing to freedom when he has the chance. He is content to be independent, but ever reliant on the goodwill of others. When Llewyn breaks and swears at his sister, innocently implicated in his misery, he realizes the role he has played. “I’m a dick,” he admits to her. This realization is fleeting, however. It is testament to Isaac for managing to scrounge some sympathy from the audience.
The latest feature from the Coen Bros is another winner, albeit a strange one that certainly isn't everyone's tea. Llewyn’s series of misadventures paint a sincere yet melancholy portrait of the cycles of habit that accompany the rejection of compromise, of a man blessed with few talents but whose destructive inability to connect with people amounts to his failure as an artist...and a man. The music was excellent, and though it hasn’t left a lingering impression, it provided an insightful examination of the 60’s East folk scene. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography perfectly captured to chilly hues of the winter and Llewyn’s bleak existence, the supporting cast effective (save Mulligan whom I found too overbearingly horrible).
This peculiarly obtuse film has some unexpected twists and leaves plenty for an audience to ponder and speculate on. The Coen Bros juggle comedic and dramatic tones with their trademark ease, and have created a discomfortingly honest slice of life drama of a man who needs to take a moment to address what he can change about himself before tackling the remorseless world.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22