Don Quixote with a Guitar

Film review: Inside Llewyn Davis (Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen)

By Sascha Krieger

No doubt: Llewyn Davis is a loser. First, his career as a folk singer is going badly: his duet partner committed suicide, his record isn’t selling, he makes so little that he cannot afford his own apartment but has to move from friend to friend, or rather from acquaintance to acquaintance. Secondly, as far as human relationships are concerned, he is a total failure. His ex girlfriend despises him, one of her predecessors faked an abortion to have him out of her – and the mutual child’s life – people who are sympathetic to him, get a rather rude treatment on a daily basis. After A Serious Man, the Coen brothers have again chosen to depict a man on the wrong side of luck. Only this time, one might say he deserves it.

Or maybe not, for he has one redeeming feature. The film opens with a long scene in which Davis (Oscar Isaac) performs a sad old folk song. The camera gently hovers around him, catches the hushed, intensely attentive atmosphere of the smoky basement club, while he sucks his audience – us – into the dark, sorrowful world he creates in his song, hinting at a depth he so often will not show in “real life”. It is this contrast, the dialogue between the sadly funny tale of a modern Don Quixote and that other, older, tenderer story, the music tells. For as much as this is Llewyn’s story, it also is that of the redeeming power of music. For even if Davis is the same at the end as the story comes full circle and returns to its opening, as he once again gets beaten up and is succeeded on stage by a young, cocky folk singer with a nasal voice who will soon change music – and not just folk music – forever, there is just the tiniest hint that this Llewyn Davis might have some sort of promise after all, maybe not as a successful singer, but as a human being.

Inside Llewyn Davis is inspired loosely by the story of Dave van Ronk, a star of the Greenwich Village folk scene around the time of Bob Dylan’s arrival there in 1961. Dylan learned a lot from van Ronk and stole some of his most promising songs, but that is a story to be told another day. This one is about a man lost in a world that hasn’t been waiting for him, who has a mission that is entirely his own. The lengths to which he goes to show the world he doesn’t care are astounding. And yet he craves love. Oscar Isaac is a miracle: even in his most repelling state, in his most rejecting attitude, there is a flicker of sad longing in his face, his eyes, a face the Coens show us much of. It is one you need to dive into, closed to the casual observer but hiding so much pain and uncertainty and desire to live one sometimes thinks it must explode. The Coens’ cinema is one of subtlety, of nuanced, of shades of grey between the black and white. In Isaac, they have found their perfect actor, heading a stellar cast including Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and Justin Timberlake.

As so often, the Coen brothers are masters at creating an atmosphere, a universe of its own, unique as well as absolutely consistent. It is a world of the night, in which grey shades reign, days are pale and dust is everywhere. Even in the open there is a sense of narrowness, of tight spaces, lightless basements that are cage and protective space in one. It is the tiny holes that provide the only rooms for creativity, for the soul to speak. And so it is that the dark world of the underground gradually regains some warmth and coziness, the dark becomes a zone of comfort, while everything else becomes cold and distant.

Having said all this, Inside Llewyn Davis is first and foremost a comedy in the Coenesque sense of the term. It is a Quixotic tale full of quirky characters at time bordering on the fairy-tale like – especially true for the sequence around Goodman’s character, a trodden-down mixture of villain and clown that calls up associations of the expressionist nightmare world of their earlier film Barton Fink. The other foot of the film is firmly on the ground, in the existential struggle of a man the world won’t welcome. But there is still that third element: music, that timeless realm of love and pain and suffering and hope. It is here the film is anchored, it is here this Don Quixote conquers his windmills, armed solely with his guitar. It is here it all comes together. Tragedy, comedy, fairy tale, social drama, held together by the softest of touches. Another Coen brothers masterpiece. What else could be expected?

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