The Coen brothers get inside their character
The Aspen Times
It’s doubtful that either Joel or Ethan Coen had any great fantasy of being a Texan on the run from a deranged killer, as their protagonist Llewellyn Moss was in the Coens’ Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men.” There’s no reason to think they’d want to put themselves in the shoes of Larry Gopnik, the nerdy and endlessly tormented physics professor from “A Serious Man.” The 19th-century Western lawman from “True Grit,” the chain-gang prisoners on the run in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” the baby kidnappers from “Raising Arizona,” the distressed car salesman who hires assassins to kill his wife in “Fargo” — all were held at arm’s length or more in the Coens’ remote, irony-soaked tone.
(Now Jeffrey Lebowski — El Duderino, not that other Jeffrey Lebowski — there’s a man the Coens might aspire to emulate. But then who wouldn’t?)
But an ambitious folk singer trying to establish himself in the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene — you get the sense the Coens could see themselves in that role. Even if the folk singer in question has a bad temper and a knack for alienating anyone who might help him, and even if he seems destined for failure.
“Inside Llewyn Davis,” the latest from the Coens, pulls in much closer and with more sympathy than we are accustomed to from the brothers. The film opens with an extended close-up of Llewyn, played by the dark-skinned, sad-eyed Oscar Isaac, skillfully picking and mournfully singing the folk tune “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in the Gaslight Cafe. Like most every Coen character, Llewyn is a trouble magnet; minutes after his performance, he will get a beating in a back alley. The pummeling is bathed in mystery; only much later do we learn what Llewyn has done to deserve it. He had heckled a fellow performer, an older woman playing autoharp; the beating came courtesy of her husband. It was poetic payback: Here was Llewyn, trying desperately to make his art and claw his way to a career, interfering with someone else’s folkie dreams.
Otherwise, the Coens’ portrayal of Llewyn is unusually straightforward. The film follows Llewyn in what could well pass for an actual week in the life of an early ’60s folk singer. Guitar in hand, he tramps from one club to another, from one borrowed couch to the next, anxiously counting the dollars he has left. The touches of humor are slight — Llewyn’s relationship with a friend’s cat that he can’t keep track of; a few absurdly narrow apartment-building hallways. The most distinctly Coen-esque element is Coen brothers regular John Goodman as a grating jazz snob who looks down on folk music. For the large part, the film is marked by an earnest melancholy — a tone that is new for the Coens and that they pull off well, though with some monotony. The entire Village scene — which one imagines would have as much humor and joy as heartache — instead comes off as cold and gray.
What the Coens seem unable to mock is the frustration born of artistic ambition. Llewyn feels the music intensely — he is a fine performer — but comes up short in whatever other departments are necessary to making a career. He is self-absorbed with lovers (Carey Mulligan), abusive toward those who want to help, shortsighted in business decisions and unwilling to compromise. When Llewyn considers chucking his music dreams and returning to the merchant marine, there is the feel of genuine tragedy.
Check again the title of the film. This might be the closest the Coens have come to getting inside one of their characters.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” shows today and Saturday at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale.