Joel and Ethan Coen are great film makers, you’ll get no argument from me on that, but they do often have a problem with their endings.
Fargo was the first offender. Officer Marge Gunderson has been doggedly tracking down a couple of inept criminals throughout the film but when she eventually catches them it is more down to chance than any conclusive and satisfactorily resolved detective work. It is a bit like Poirot inviting everyone into the drawing room to say he has no idea who did it, only for the smoking gun to fall out of the killer’s jacket.
The Big Lebowski followed. The film is great but the impending threat that has been building for a couple of hours is all resolved over a chat in a car park, the violent criminals easily persuaded to just forget about it.
No Country For Old Men is considered one of the brothers’ finest movies but it doesn’t actually have any resolution at all. The bad guy just wanders off down the street. ‘But that’s real life.’ people told me. That may well be true but it’s also poor storytelling.
Even True Grit turns into a substandard version of The Perils of Pauline by the end. A gun! Yikes! A big hole! Oh no! A rattlesnake! Heyalp! Heyalp!
Burn After Reading is possibly the worst of all. All the plot threads in that film are actually wrapped up as two men just sit in a room and talk about what happened to everybody. Although, oddly enough, in this case it kind of works.
Of course Raising Arizona is just brilliant from beginning to end but the fact is, with the Coens, you never quite know how it is all going to pan out.
Interestingly in the case of Inside Llewyn Davis it doesn’t matter that nothing really happens at the end because nothing really happens at any point in the film. There is no let down because there is no build up, we literally leave the main character exactly where we met him one hundred minutes earlier. What we get are scenes of a struggling folk singer milling around for a week in 1961 New York. There is very little character development, no suspense and no stand out moments.
I liked it very much.
Inside Llewyn Davis is essentially a character piece. American Hustle was best when centred on the players but was ultimately flawed as the story was not as interesting as they were. The Coen brothers avoid this by keeping any narrative to an absolute minimum. Arcs are introduced and go nowhere but this is to the credit of a film that merely aims to follow one man around for a few days and knows that too many plot threads would just complicate things.
There clearly is a much bigger story here, dramatic things have clearly gone on before and no doubt will after but I like the fact that we are effectively just introduced to the characters and are allowed to write the story ourselves. Nothing is signposted, lots of things are not explicitly explained and the ending is open and it is a much better film for it. It is all quite brave on the part of the directors but for me the gamble paid off beautifully.
For this to work of course you need a compelling protagonist and in this respect, once again, they have refused to play it safe. Llewyn Davis is not particularly likeable. He seems to think the world owes him something because of his talent and he is cross at it for making him work for it. He is selfish and confrontational, he takes people for granted and shies away from commitment and responsibility. The writers have given him just enough compassion though to allow you to root for him. It is a very fine line they are walking but they balance on it masterfully.
Integral to how you feel about the character will be how you read his relationship with his cat. (It isn’t really his cat but ownership is such a complex notion when it comes to cats so we’ll go with it.) Davis clearly struggles to connect with humans in any kind of satisfactory way but the uncharacteristic duty he feels toward this animal is his main saving grace. There are different ways of reading this as there are different ways of interpreting the role the cat plays in the film.
Taken at a fairly straight forward level, the cat is a reflection of him. It does what it wants irrespective of the emotional ties people have to it, yet it will happily milk them for the affection they give. It wanders nomadically around the city but is drawn to the places it feels at home and it is tough enough to take some knocks but still keep going. Significantly it isn’t even always the same cat just as Davis does not always seem to be the same man, contradictory soul that he is.
By that rationale you could also read the cat as some kind of mystical and metaphorical extension of his own id. Maybe it is a spectral creature sent to provide guidance and solace. That last one would certainly explain how he manages to carry it around for so long. Anyone who has ever had a cat as a pet will be amused by the idea of carrying one on the subway, in one arm, while holding a guitar case in the other.
Davis is played really well by Oscar Isaac. Isaac is one of those actors you tend to notice in various films but don’t really know who he is. You might have see him in Drive, The Bourne Legacy and Robin Hood, and it is great to see him get a lead role perfectly suited to his talents. He is joined by his Drive co-star Carey Mulligan wonderfully portraying a fragile woman hiding her insecurities, sadness and affections behind aggression. On the surface she seems to be the one person most wronged by Llewyn Davis but she is far from an innocent victim. Justin Timberlake is here too giving another perfectly good performance after In Time, Friends with Benefits and The Social Network. Of course this being a Coen brothers film there are plenty of other quirky characters and John Goodman puts in a memorable showing in one of the more random parts of the film.
Speaking of randomness, this is something else that has been used with mixed success in Coen films. Raising Arizona gloriously bathes in it and it works in other movies like O’ Brother Where Art Thou and The Hudsucker Proxy but there have been other times when it has misfired (literally in the case of the thug who blows his own head apart when he gets his pistol mixed up with his inhaler in Intolerable Cruelty). The quirks are handled better here, just limited enough so as to work alongside the rest of the film. There are moments of oddness but both the central character and the audience raise an eyebrow and move on.
Inside Llewyn Davis is my favourite of all the films the Coen’s have made in the last fifteen years and if you go in expecting a simple peek at the life of a complicated man then there is much to enjoy. There are some nice tunes too.
ISWYS Test Score:
1. Is there a female lead?
2. If that character was your sister would you respect her?
3. If your sister did those things would you proudly tell all your friends about it?
Carey Mulligan is the female lead although there are other interesting women in Davis’ life, most notably his sister, who I think he does respect in his own idiosyncratic way. No one in the film is riding to great heights of human achievement but they are doing perfectly well getting by. I’m giving Inside Llewyn Davis a 2.
Is this one for the kids ?
The film is a 15 and while there is no nudity or graphic violence it is clearly all quite adult in tone. There is lots of swearing and shouting about genitals, both human and feline.