The Coen Brothers’ follow up their western True Grit, set in the dry desolation of Texas, by this time, taking us to 1961 Greenwich Village in New York. In a much colder climate we follow a week in the life of struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis. Caught at the wrong point in history. A man before his time.
The film opens with the Llewyn Davis performing, on stage, the folk song; Hang Me, Oh Hang Me. (Incidentally almost every song was performed live on film.) The Coen Brothers chose to cast a singer who could act, as opposed to an actor that could sing. As soon as you hear the opening song you will see that this has paid off for the brothers; it sets up that we are dealing with a talented character. His struggle to find somewhere to stay (and with no home of his own,) shows us that his genius is somewhat unestablished. He ultimately ends up crashing at the Gorfeins. This is the beginning of a week in the life of Llewyn Davis.
Davis’ welsh first name is a nod towards Bob Dylan; who acquired his name from welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Llewyn is essentially a dislikable character, he is presuming, selfish and discourteous, however Oscar Issac’s performance does allow us to sympathise and care about his plight. His alienation in the film is congruent with his reluctance to work on the parody pop song “Please Mr Kennedy.” Which for the record provides one of the funniest scenes. His estrangement from the world is highlighted most when interacting with other characters. There is a palpable tension between him and his friends; Jim & Jean. The hilarious Jazz enthusiast played by John Goodman has a brashness creates a “shift-in-your-seat” awkwardness mirrored by Llewyn on screen. And the crushing reality that is brought down on him by the (mistaken) record producer in Chicago.
The visuals of this film corroborate the pathos that is dripping out from every scene. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel has again perfectly captured the atmosphere of the film with a clever approach to colour and lighting (much like he did in Amelie.) The semblance is reminiscent of the album cover of Dave Van Ronk’s Inside Dave Von Ronk. His dull to very very dull lighting creates an earthly feel that submerges you into the coldness of Greenwich Village, helping us to sympathise with the character.
That’s not to say that this film isn’t funny. In the typical black humour style of the Coen’s they have produced a philosophical comedy where each joke is drenched in subtext. This film is almost note perfect but it’s coy deliverance results in the film being unable to engage a stronger connection from the audience.
The performance, the cinematography and the fact that most of the songs were performed live, all contribute to a powerfully intimate melancholia. It’s acerbic and brilliantly observed, another welcome addition to the Coen Brothers’ catalogue. Additionally the comparison’s between the characters and real folk singers (Dave Von Ronk) is interesting to explore.
Bram Trevor Welch