For many years the Coen Bros were the epitome of post modern filmmaking, playfully moving between pastiche and parody with almost every scene being a quirky quotation from film history but becoming instantly quotable in their own right. They were key players in a new strain of independent American filmmaking – John Sales was another – that created perverse but wonderfully idiosyncratic parallel universes where real life only emerged from occasional cracks in an otherwise tightly controlled stylised surface. And, hitting the mark, their outlandish film noir filter was perfectly suited to America’s post Cold War anxiety, which came to a head with the Oscar winning ‘No Country for Old Men’, a brutal invasion movie on a national scale.
But, all good things must come to an end. And just like America’s booming economy, post modernism crashed; no longer in tune with a new culture where anxiety had mutated into something very real and its leading filmmakers could no longer remain at the forefront of contemporary cinema without a change of direction.
The Coen Bros latest feature, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, returns to the Sixties as did their ‘A Serious Man’ at the end of the last decade and, just like that film, a more sombre note inflects the comedy. Yet, more than that, the Coens are embracing a different style of indie filmmaking, one that partly has its roots in America’s Jim Jarmusch style low budget realism but also in the various European postwar new waves and it is no coincidence that it won the Gotham Award and the Grand Prix at Cannes and didn’t find favour with the Oscars.
But the Coens have not lost their knack for superbly drawn characters. Neither one thing or another and carefully balanced between two extremes, they have always had an unnerving capacity to repel and attract in equal measure. And with Oscar Isaac they have struck gold; a classic new wave drifter and a conflicted Coens’ anti-hero all rolled into one; establishing a thread between two eras, a natural extension of John Turturro in ‘Barton Fink’ but completed different at the same time. It is the kind of ambiguity that overrides form and emphatically asserts their authorial stamp; being something that has always existed in their work and, in the most ironic way conceivable, makes a complete mockery of much post modern theory.
Isaac plays the title character, Llewyn Davis, part of New York’s Greenwich Village folk revival scene. He had enjoyed minor success as part of a duo but fell short – at least commercially – as a solo act although his haunting take on ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’ was exceptional and, to contemporary ears, leaves his peers standing. It created an interesting tension, one that in a lesser film would resolve itself by an industry insider discovering him against the odds but, here, there is no musical future beyond playing small bars and occasional work as a session man for aspiring artists, who are likely to go the same way as him even before Dylan’s electric moment.
This is a film about modest choices, living with failed ambition but ploughing on regardless or giving up entirely, which in Llewyn’s case would mean returning to the merchant navy where he could only ‘exist’ and no more. He plays a session on a gimmicky ‘record’, ‘Please, Mr. Kennedy’. It’s the kind of irritating nonsense that ends up being a fluke hit but Llewyn cannot see beyond the song’s crapness and accepts an upfront payment rather than royalties. The Coens don’t make much of it – there is no need – but it lingers in our minds as he bums around sleeping on strangers’ sofas and surviving on others’ generosity.
‘Everything you touch turns to shit, like King Midas’s idiot brother’ Jean quips in desperation. Jean is Llewyn’s ex-lover but pregnant with his kid – probably – and forms part of a Folk double act with her current partner, Jim. She is a picture of innocence on stage but cynical and embittered off it and he is the real deal boy next door. Superbly played by Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, they both capture a stage persona that some artists had at the time, which should have been the antithesis of the youth revolution around the corner, but somehow found favour with the new audience.
John Goodman’s washed up jazzman, Roland Turner, is the closest we come to more familiar Coen Bros caricature. It could have derailed the film but Goodman is far too accomplished a performer for that and he positively revels in pushing against the line without crossing it. This is what it looks and feels like to be half-dead – musical cynicism at the end of the road – where Roland can only find pleasure in his own endgame and despising Llewyn: “In jazz, you know, we play all the notes; 12 notes on the scale, dip shit, not three chords on a ukulele.” Irv and Sydney from David O Russell’s ‘American Hustle’ would have agreed and the two films share a worldly knowingness that remind us of that unique time – thirty/forty years ago – when the studio system embraced an indie mentality in perhaps American cinema’s finest hour.
Watch out for some feline scene stealing from two – or is it one? – moggy in a nicely judged running joke. And guess what, the cat is called Ulysses and just like the Coen’s wacky take on Homer, ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’, legendary Americana producer, T-Bone Burnett, takes care of the music.
Bruno Delbonnel provides the cinematography. He is best known for Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s colourful ‘Amelie’ but, here, Delbonnel shoots in monochrome and finds that special kind of beauty, which is unique to townscapes during freezing winters and touches us somewhere deep in our sub-conscious in ways that go beyond nostalgia and sentiment. It sets the tone for the entire film, as a solo wind instrument might for a jazz quintet – using all 12 notes, of course.
‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ reminds us that – sometimes – an Oscar snub is a massive compliment. It’s one of the Coen Bro’s finest pictures and, arguably, their best.cialis generic brand namesbuy cialis online from canadageneric cialis quality cialis online secure