Those that know me are all too keenly aware that I am an outspoken detractor of the much loved Coen brothers (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen) writing and directing duo. I often question the legitimacy of their fame, and speculate if it wasn’t their names opening a picture if it would be as warmly received. Hollywood has painted an aura or mystique about them that has escaped most other big name filmmakers, making each of their releases an instant Oscar contender months before anyone has even seen the movie. For me, they don’t deserve it. Look at Quentin Tarantino, who, even with consistent praise for most of his movies, has been widely criticized as a one trick pony. Oddly, The Coens haven’t. An overwhelmingly high number of their films follows the same recycled format: an idiot protagonist comes across a prize, an idiot sets out to get the prize by hiring a middleman idiot, and wacky hijinks ensue for two hours. Then, in case anybody missed the deeper meanings of the story, they insert an end film monologue to throw the theme in the audience’s face. Even their adaptations and remakes fit this format, and I end up exhausted by the end of the first act and able to predict precisely the course their films will take. There are a couple exceptions I realize, but this is a dominating and obnoxious mold they often refuse to break, but with their latest buzzer, Inside Llewelyn Davis -- a film that journals the ‘60s folk scene through a fictional and failing aspiring artist -- no such predictions came easy.
This is unlike any film they have ever made.
The Coen bros keep Davis small, short, and seductively sad, not only courageously breaking old habits, but abandoning much of a plot altogether. The script has a rambling structure, following a series of episodes connected only through the film’s title character, folk singer Llewelyn Davis, played with amazing sensitivity by up and comer Oscar Isaac. He’s of a former duo no longer in action and now a solo act, one so pitiful that he can’t even afford a winter coat. He’s left with a few shows here or there, mainly at the iconic Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village, the club famously rumored to be the birthplace of folk master Bob Dylan. Seemingly months before Dylan’s entry into the scene that revolutionized folk music into a highly commercial enterprise, we’re shown a period in music history where the make it or break it mantra was at its most literal. This sets off a wandering narrative where Llewelyn collides with a multitude of eccentric characters, and the actors are all familiar faces: Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, and a turn by John Goodman that might earn him a nomination. There’s many more, but if there’s a flaw among them it’s that the performances feel too ‘directed‘. As good as the performances are, they feel too specific in their mannerisms and behaviors, as if The Coens were ultra specific in what they wanted to do. Still, this is a nitpick amongst an otherwise fantastic supporting cast, and without them the bumbling nature of the story wouldn’t work.
His yarn talks more through metaphor than story and shares symbolic resonance with Woody Allen’s underrated 2005 thriller, Match Point. Both films preach a world weary message: talent and hard work are merely prerequisites to a 400 level course on luck. How little control we have of our fate is an uncomfortable thought best left to be repressed, and Davis sure does try. In fact, repression is a core facet of his characterization. As the film continues, it becomes clear Llewelyn has become a burnt out furnace where all that’s left of his passion are fumes. Carey Mulligan’s Jean is a fiery engine of anger, and the film’s never better than when the two share the screen. She’s the closest thing he has to a love interest, and there’s an unstated fervor between them, aided not just by their juxtaposition but by the unstated tenderness between them. He’s alienated himself from everything but his music, and one gets the impression had Llewelyn not closed himself off from living things, himself included, the two might have a future. The rest of the characters are to us like they are to him: phantoms passing into the frame and out. Admittedly, it’s difficult to invest in a character hardly interested in people or much of anything really, and it may leave many viewers cold.
Like many of their films, but perhaps especially Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and No Country for Old Men, there’s an overwhelming feeling of life outside the frame. In a funny way, this adds another dimension to the feature far more powerful than 3D, since instead of deepening the perceived depth of the frame, it’s as though you can stick your head into the cinema screen, look left to right, and discover a universe all to itself teeming with life. This is especially important in Davis as the film is more about a place and just being than any sort of obligations to an arc. These details form a striking authenticity that invites you to stay in the beautifully shadowed corridors and smoke-filled clubs, lensed to perfection by Bruno Delbonnel. Delbonnel, who replaced longtime Coens collaborator Roger Deakins, fostered arguably the best use of the “bloom” visual technique, and the dark and almost ghoulish images set a grand surreal stage for a briefcase-sized story. Davis is a depressed dream that keeps you sorrowful the day after you’ve woken up, and, like most dreams, you might not understand why. Like its protagonist, the Coens latest film is eccentric, alienating, and might leave you cold, but it tries to transport you to a time and place you’ll want to come back to. I may not love The Coens, but thanks to them, I love the Gaslight.