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Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) is a pure Coen Brothers film from start to finish. It is quiet, contemplative and laugh out loud funny all the way through, sometimes all in the same scene. It has a more laid back tone like their films Blood Simple (1984), Fargo (1996), No Country for Old Men (2007), and A Serious Man (2009), while keeping the understated humor of Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998) and Burn After Reading (2008). It’s also a film driven by its soundtrack, much like Raising Arizona (1989) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000).
The story, set in the middle of the folk music revival in 1961, is of burgeoning folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). He’s trying out a solo act after the death of his partner and he’s not having a very easy time of it. He recorded an album that isn’t selling, he plays gigs when he can get them and he has a manager that doesn’t really do much of anything for him.
Ten minutes into Inside Llewyn Davis we are captivated by Joel and Ethan Coen’s technique: those controlled compositions, steady tonal rhythms, and wisdom regarding the script are divine (divine because the brothers are spiritualists). When they cut to the p.o.v. of an orange tabby cat from inside a subway as it roars through stations, we realize the Coens can identify with any of God’s creatures.
A Coen Brothers narrative is rarely restricted to the arena of character study, plot, or Hollywood cliche. Like Wes Anderson, their work is sometimes, however lovingly, referred to as “quirky”. But the filmmaking brothers convey much more than that: they’re simply today’s coolest filmmakers. Their funny, peculiar, and humane filmic examinations overcome fashionable or trendy gimmicks, and instead honour the human spirit with genuine melancholy not nihilism.
A funny thing happened on the way to me reviewing True Grit. As I sat down to rewatch it I had firmly in my mind my initial critical impression from seeing it in theaters several years ago. That opinion lined up with the general critical consensus: fun, but unambitious for a Coen brothers film. A mainstream concession from two usually idiosyncratic filmmakers. Lesser Coen. Then I watched the film again, and a light went off. I still do not think that True Grit will be remembered as among the best films of the Coen body, but the film is far from lazy, phoned in, or toned down. It should not be seen as an attempt by the brothers to make a commercially successful film by compromising; rather the film falters because it is ambitious, pushing Joel and Ethan Coen into untried territory. In lieu of a straightforward review, then, I offer this list of ambitious elements in True Grit, and some thoughts on how these choices help or hurt the movie.
The Coen brothers have a real skill for surprise, zigging when everyone expects them to zag. Take their run of films from the mid to late 2000’s. After the underwhelming one-two punch of Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, they rebounded by winning their first and only Best Picture Oscar in 2007 with No Country for Old Men. The next year saw them making Burn After Reading, which completely befuddled critics on its release; initially dismissed as fun but light fare, the film has over time gained a cult following. Two years later they made True Grit, their greatest commercial success and as close to a “crowd pleaser” as the idiosyncratic brothers have ever made. Nestled between these two came A Serious Man, a small budget film (by Coen standards - it cost $7 million to No Country’s $25 and Burn’s $37) released without much fanfare. It differs largely in tone from the films which surround it, having neither the dourness of No Country or the lighter touch of Burn or True Grit. Of all the brother’s films it probably has the most in common with 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, minus that film’s noir trappings, but in reality it stands as a singular creation. At once small in scale and breathtakingly ambitious, the film finds the Coens in top form as writers and directors. Many will disagree, but for my money A Serious Man is not only the most Coeny Coen brothers film, it’s also the best, and one of the best American films in decades.
Joel and Ethan Coen are masters at creating characters. Their genius lies in how they drive those characters by making them frolic randomly across the screen. The Big Lebowski was made during a really confusing time in history. The Cold War had long thawed out and the real impact of mass communications (the internet) was a palpable topic with the dawn of the Y2K threat. Disenfranchisement was less punk and turned to different expressions through grunge and the loser aesthetic. While the world searched for a new identifier (Who’s the new unifiying threat? We must create the new “in” thing!”), the idea of just going with the flow seemed more appealing than stressing it all out. Anxiety was for the doers, the makers, the innovators, and the corporations. Real life was sitting outside the convenience store, the beach, or by the television watching the world go by. Place The Big Lebowski outside of that mindset though and it still holds up.
The Coen brothers take us back to the early Greenwich Village folk scene during the winter of 1961. “Inside Llewyn Davis” follows a week in the life of a young, aspiring folk singer, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), whose attempts to make a career out of his music are made during a time before Bob Dylan came along, revolutionized the folk genre and became an important figure during the 60s counterculture movement. But this film is not about Bob Dylan, it is about a musician, who could have been Bob Dylan but failed to succeed in the business.
Through the Coen Brothers’ vigilant style of punctuating the psychological with precise camera movements, Barton Fink (1991) generates a striking portrayal of inner turmoil. Feelings of anguish and distress are brought to life by the interaction between the characters, their presumed psychological states, and the visual rhetoric which expresses this on a visceral level. In perhaps their finest example, the Coen Brothers demonstrate how emphasis may be furnished through the variance of shot lengths, focal lengths, and camera movements. Their unique style of following—almost measuring—the experiences of their characters allows them to capture their journey with unparalleled scrutiny. Through a variety of close ups, long shots, and material effects which are honed in on in order to concretize their expression of mental, and therefore metaphysical, states, Barton Fink exemplifies the Coen Brothers’ fascination with people.
A fedora blows into a wooded crossroads, surrounded by a bed of delicate flora and grass that sways in the wind like wisps of baby’s hair in the afternoon sun. A sudden gust of wind carries the fedora into the air and down the road, beckoning us to watch the story of Miller’s Crossing, a oft-brutal gangsters’ tale with film-noir roots that paradoxically unfolds with the casual familiar comfort of a warm afternoon breeze as it chooses to retell the old stories in the distinct voice of the Coens instead of forging new cinematic ideas. We see the glint of green depression glass filled with bootleg liquor poured into crystal glasses of two-faced liars and brutal gangsters as they lament that the fix has been “fixed”, as there is neither honor nor a sense of irony among thieves who have been robbed of their perfectly stolen money. The loud-mouthed, crass Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) demands satisfaction but is only offered a cold thousand-yard stare by Leo (Albert Finney) and the beguiling deceit behind the eyes of his enforcer, Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne), a man of many secrets with enough cunning and gumption to seem trustworthy. Leo and Tom speak with the familiarity and affection of father and son, but the hearts of gangsters are as black as midnight and Tom has many unpaid debts and unanswered sins.
The Coen Brothers’ second feature, Raising Arizona, is probably their most outwardly zany film. It seems everything is a little bit crazy, from Nicolas Cage’s constant dumbfounded looks to the demon bounty hunter to the out-of-control wandering camera. Though nothing they have done since matches the frenzied pitch and overt lunacy of Raising Arizona, it sets the tone of their humor that remains consistent throughout their films. It was also quite a huge departure from their first film, Blood Simple (1984), which was a pitch black neo-noir with little to no humor at all.