Monday, December 30, 2013

The Tales of Brave Ulysses

Here's what I think of Llewyn Davis.

Spoilers, so just stop reading now.

I think that the Coens were hanging out listening to old records and decided that it'd be fun to try writing some song lyrics. This led to talk of a movie.

Being the Coens, they got someone to put money behind it. Being the Coens, they got T Bone Burnett interested. They got actors who could sing. They thought up a few episodes in the life of a 60s era folk singer that would lead to singing.

Thinking about working with T Bone again, they started thinking about what a good time they had messing around on O Brother which got them to thinking about how they love riffing on their favorite work of all time, that wellspring of Western Lit. They decided to string the songs together with a meandering Odyssey motif, underscoring it by mashing it up with that other classic story, The Incredible Journey. This film is about a young cat trying to find his way home.

Except there is no direction home. There is no home. Dig?

Finally, the Coens wanted to hang out with their good buddy John Goodman so they wrote some crazy shit for him so he could ham it up and they could all have a great time together. And the audience gets what it wants, which is exactly this larger-than-life Goodman (and life-sized Goodman is already pretty large). Of course, his role is there for a reason beyond its immediate humor (he is the aged musician and he is the one who gets us the info about Mike Timlin in a way that undercuts the emotional horror with a good laugh).

For all of what I imagine was slap-dashery in its conception, it is also carefully constructed and executed perfectly. It works as a loving telling (I insist that the Coens are always loving) of one folk-singing jerk's story and it works as an examination of the broader cultural shift of which the Greenwich folk scene serves as microcosm.

It all adds up to a great film. It's a film that I respect. I wanted to love it and I almost do, but I've had to talk myself into doing so. The film just didn't pack the same punch for me that recent Coen titles have. I didn't immediately connect to it emotionally the same way I did with True Grit and A Serious Man. Then again, it took me a second viewing to really appreciate and love No Country for Old Men. And it took me over five years and a few re-watches to understand that The big Lebowski is a masterpiece.

I guess I'm in the "this is minor Coens" camp at the moment. The thing is, the Coens are so in control, so at the top of their game, that even their minor work is more important and more worthy of regard than just about everything else being made on film today.

The best thing that I can say about Inside Llewyn Davis is that I'd love to watch it again, sooner rather than later.

1 comment:

Justin Chalmers-McDonald said...


I am in the major Coen Brothers film camp, with True Grit bordering on minor films (but again, with the Coens, minor films still land on my top 10 list for the year). As I alluded to in my comments on the film, the thing that fascinates me about Llewyn Davis is that he is crippled by knowing too much, where the overall thesis of the Coen Brothers is that we are driven by what we don't know. So in a lot of ways this film comes from the opposite direction that they usually take.

That being said, I was struck by the mirroring of the first and last scenes, with identical dialogue that robbed the viewer of the sense of growth, and arriving on a new emotional plain. The journey, the growth, finding acceptance by the Gorfeins, finally being able to release his emotions and sing "Dink's Song" alone, it all got taken away again, and we were stuck in the same cycle, feeling like the journey home brought us back to the same place we started. It was a gut-punch, and I loved it.

- Justin