I have a piece on Inside Llewyn Davis over at Mostlyfilm.com this week in time for its UK release. And below is what I wrote about it for my best of the year list. It would have been my best film of the year if I hadn't seen the other great dark, romantic period piece of last year, The Immigrant. Though that won't see proper release for another few months. The thing about Llewyn Davis is that even having said all I've said, there's an inexhaustible quality to the film; you could write ten thousand words a day for a month and still it would reward repeat viewings. For instance I never got around to mentioning until right now that every single song in the film is about leaving and dying. That Llewyn's journey is toward annihilation. Toward a dark, uncertain tomorrow. It rejects the future. It rejects anyone else's notion of success. It rejects bullshit. No film has ever shown me how I, we, live today. If it can't say anything about the future it's because none of us know and we're all scared. The film's finest moment of reflection comes in a road-side diner. Llewyn sits opposite two strangers, miles from home or fortune, in a room echoing the sound of passing cars like the howls of rage and disappointment he's been hearing all his life, racing by like every single opportunity he's missed. And he's here. Three hours from Chicago, in the blinding dark.
"Guys, we can't ALL identify with Llewyn Davis." wrote Matt Prigge after a few weeks of everyone in the world walking out of Joel & Ethan Coen's latest dark night of the soul and feeling like they'd lived some part of it before. In defense of everyone else, if you're a man who's as used to failure as success, or more accurately, have gotten so used to failure that success must be taken in microscopic doses, you understand what it means to be Llewyn Davis. Who's Llewyn Davis? He's the wrong cat. He could have made it but the pool was too full of contenders just like him who knew how to play the game a little better, or didn't know there was a game to play. Davis knows only too well that the game is real and rigged to boot. Anyone else who ever figured this out and said "no" was going to get an extra barb in their heart whenever he slips and falls, whenever he realizes his loved ones are getting fucked over, whenever he pushes his family away, everytime he nails one of his songs to no applause, and especially when he sits at that lunch counter with no money to his name, taking his feet gently out of his sopping wet shoes hoping they'll dry faster. That particular close-up broke my heart in six places. I lost count of the injustices he suffered that I'd also lived through; when I left it was into pouring rain, feeling like there was lead in my shoes. If there's solace, and there is, it's that the Coen Brothers know how to render the struggle for acceptance and the cruelty of fate better than just about anyone. They've returned to the colour palette that made Hudsucker Proxy feel immortal; director of photography Bruno Delbonnel's humane camera turning even the worst demons on Llewyn's shoulder into angels. And then there's the music. I'm definitely someone who's had more than his fill of Marcus Mumford and have on occassion hoped he would pack up his guitar and leave me alone, but his voice works as the broken promise of achievement. That radio-ready voice could and may well have been Llewyn's ticket to fame, but he'll never know that world. All he has is the bittersweet sound of Mumford (or Mike Timlin) to taunt him. Nevermind that it's their saddest screenplay, their most breath-taking evocation of any time period and that in Oscar Isaac one of the greatest performances they've ever directed, the Coens made me understand and even come to appreciate Mumford's voice. If I didn't already think this was their best film, that fact alone would have pushed it into classic territory. Forget that, though, it's too personal. Inside Llewyn Davis combines the lovely Folkways-styled soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the often terrifying depths of human behavior, drive and solitude of No Country For Old Men, the Job-like suffering and hysterical dark humour that drove A Serious Man, the frustration and injustice at the heart of The Man Who Wasn't There and somehow manages to keep alive the romantic worldview that kept Hudsucker afloat, not to mention following just three years after that film's 1958 New York setting. It's like a greatest hits record, but every cut sounds brand new. Who doesn't wish they could achieve that. In the meantime, we can settle for feeling like Llewyn Davis, putting the guitar down to finish the last verse unaccompanied knowing that no matter how good we're doing, there's no money in it.