There might be a pessimistic message at the heart of the new Coen Brothers homage to New York’s 1960s folk scene, but that doesn’t take away from the anti-heteronormative enjoyment, says Simon Mernagh.
Fabled folk siren, Joni Mitchell capped off her third album Ladies of the Canyon with ‘The Circle Game’, an ethereal kumbaya about the cyclical nature of life, love and everything in between. While the Coen Brothers’ homage to the 1960s New York folk scene, Inside Llewyn Davis avoids the Canadian songstress completely; it certainly captures her song’s mood and message, albeit with a distinctly negative note.
It’s 1960-something and Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a Neil Young-stroke-Bob Dylan-esque troubadour with a heart of gold. Like a rolling stone (I’ll stop now), he drifts from couch to couch as he plays the same dank, dusty Greenwich Village bar over and over again. Fate regularly conspires against him, and we’re invited to really like Llewyn, but then he says something so unbearably self-obsessed or yells at some elderly person, making sympathy tricky.
If Inside Llewyn Davis bears particular similarities to any other Cohen Brothers’ movie, it’s A Serious Man. Both films travel the Hitchcockian route of taking an innocent guy; heaping misfortune on him and watching him suffer. However, while A Serious Man’s Larry spirals further down the plughole, Llewyn circles it. He’s stuck in an endless, monotonous loop of gig-couch-gig, but in the Coens’ deft hands, such monotony is riveting and often amusing.
Oddball supporting turns spice up an otherwise sullen affair. The snarky Garrett Hedlund and fuzzy-faced Justin Timberlake enliven proceedings, while the usual sweet-faced Carey Mulligan is unflinchingly nasty to Llewyn, assaulting him with frequent and increasingly funny tirades of bile. John Goodman’s character is a monster, overflowing with insensitive jabs and lurching around on two crutches, like a wounded Silent Hill ghoul.
If Inside Llewyn Davis has a moral, it’s that the universe is inherently random. The cosmos doesn’t care how beautifully you play guitar, or what goals you strive for. You can try, you can hope to turn things around in your favour, but there is no higher power, and if there is, it could care less about you or your miniscule problems. Talk about being cruel to your characters; this is the Coens’ existential answer to the Saw school of torture porn.
So Inside Llewyn Davis won’t be earning points from the theologians (or optimists, for that matter), but it does succeed in championing alternative lifestyles. A pivotal argument with another character, who passionately advocates settling down in the comfortable suburbs, heralds a twist in Llewyn’s story, and he embarks on a journey of defiance. His life may be solitary and unrelentingly tough, but the passion for his craft ultimately fulfils him. Llewyn experiences life, while his barren friends merely exist.
A sombre yet darkly funny odyssey through the pre-Woodstock New York folk scene, Inside Llewyn Davis is a fascinating stab at the confines of heteronormativity, with outstanding music and a breakout performance from Isaac. It confirms Joni’s message: we’re captive on the carousel of time.
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