The Coen bros. demonstrate the beautiful brutality of talent’s place within life’s natural cycle of giveth, and taketh away.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Dir: Joel and Ethan Coen
Original Release Date: 6 December 2013
No one does awkward quite like Joel and Ethan Coen. Masters of melancholy subject matter; the writer/director brothers have regularly shone beauty through unrelenting darkness with a certain sense of unique style on film, literally and metaphorically. At the same time however, the beauty they bestow is frequently, altogether rather gloriously misleading. Just as the audience is lulled, ever so briefly, into reverting to Hollywood type – in the sense that a Coen bros. character arc or plot scenario will turn out ‘for the best’ – just as quickly are they stung with the stark reality of what they’re engaged in. And rarely is it a surprise, a factor that makes the Coens’ technique and craft all the more laudable. After all, despite knowing it’s a Coen bros. flick before you watch it, by the end you’re left just as uncomfortable and compromised as the characters who’ve been draining your empathy levels for the past few hours or so. They get you, and get to you. Time and time again.
Inside Llewyn Davis, the bros. 2013 picture set within the unforgiving realms of the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene, itself in the grips of New York City winter, is no exception. Out on his arse wherever he goes, unable to catch the break he feels his talent deserves, and with barely a dollar to his name, our titular character (Oscar Isaac) hitches from New York to Chicago to perform one final audition for the part of ‘made it’…
And what a performance it is. Heartfelt and moving, drowning in sorrow, Davis’ wailing tale of the death of Queen Jane Seymour – Henry VIII’s third wife and mother to his only son, Edward VI – is a wonderful parallel rendition of the character’s own traumatic themes. Using nothing more camera-wise than a slowly creeping instance of basic, over-the-shoulder shot-reverse-shot, the Coens create a heavy sense of what I like to call, beautiful tension. The shadows surrounding the floor of the closed club in which they dwell, both serve to perpetuate the ever-shortening nature of Davis’ career as a musician. These shadows, a permanent fixture that Davis has never been able to escape, once again engulf him at the equivalent of his last chance saloon, a venue that, fittingly, is not even open to the public.
Isaac, who recorded the song live, plays to the conflicted minds of the audience splendidly, demonstrating the hallmarks of a down-on-their-luck potential star in the making now giving it their all one final time while laced with hints of fear and the underlying knowledge of negative inevitability. Even then, however, part of you wonders if he’s pulled it off, willing him to do despite his frequent tendency toward acting the arsehole, such is the practise of traditional Hollywood. Alas, the harsh reality of the music industry and, of course, life itself, is that those with the power to invest only invest in what can be sold, as producer Bud Grossman frankly informs Davis upon completion of his performance. It’s a bitter reminder to Davis and to everyone watching that no matter the sacrifice, perseverance, or ability a single artist, if the selling of the talent one is blessed with does not equate to the generation of profit, then one’s progression, more than likely, has a remarkably low ceiling. Like King Henry, Davis suffers insurmountable loss in place of what he wants. Like Queen Jane, his career is dead, cold as a stone.
And once again, they got to you.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s upcoming picture, ‘Hail, Caesar!’, is due for release 5 Feb 2016.