The Coen Brothers have been beloved by critics for 30 years, won a handful of awards, and dabbled in seemingly every genre. Yet, somehow it almost feels as if they are underrated as filmmakers. They’ve never achieved rockstar director status like a Quentin Tarantino, nor are their names uttered in the hushed whispers of legends like Hitchcock, Scorsese, or Coppola. They’ve just quietly played in their corner of the sandbox for almost 30 years and never seem to waver in quality. Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t feel like a major work for them and yet it was still easily one of the best films of 2013 just by virtue of the fact that they made it. It’s kind of a musical, kind of a biopic, kind of a drama, kind of a comedy, kind of an art film, and always thoroughly a Coen Brothers movie. The flick also now has the distinction of being their first film to enter into The Criterion Collection. I find it hard to believe it will be their last Criterion release (especially since Barton Fink still hasn’t been released on Blu in North America), but even if this is the only Criterion Coen movie that seems right. It might be their most esoteric and personal movie, which is saying a lot.
The film takes place in that highly romanticized world of the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 60s. Bob Dylan had yet to break out, so the folk music style was caught in a transition period between its almost campy origins and the heartbreaking poetry to come. Our “hero” is Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a solo act who pours his heart out into his songs on the stage and stumbles around between gigs sleeping on couches and finding new ways to make his life worse. He opens the film getting beat up behind a bar after gig. He then wakes up in the house of a professor friend, locks himself out with their cat, and stumbles across town to crash with a husband and wife (Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake) who are also a musical act. Oh and one of them was secretly impregnated by Davis and isn’t too pleased about it (no points for guessing who). From there the film continues in the same rambling style with the Coens’ camera coldly holding back to watch Davis stumble from one personal disaster to the next, peaking with a trip to Chicago to try to secure new management with music legend Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). Much like A Serious Man, the film plays like a comedy of errors about an epic failure whose life seems to be tumbling out of control for the amusement of a cruel, yet wryly hilarious god. I suppose you could describe the Coens as the gods of their own universe, but that’s a bit pretentious and I’d imagine no one would find that reading more irritating than the Coens themselves.
Inside Llewyn Davis is an oddly loose and unstructured effort for the typically anally attentive filmmakers. That’s sort of the point and sort of a problem. Their primary goal seems to be to recreate a lost world of the 60s Greenwich Village folk scene that they are obsessed with and treat with utter reverence. Collaborating again with music director T-Bone Burnett (who put together the award-winning soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?), the film lovingly dedicates a great deal of time to expertly crafted folk covers (plus one hilarious space race novelty song from Timberlake, proving the Coens just can’t take anything too seriously). The world is undeniably evocative, while the plot meanders and rambles along with no particular purpose beyond facilitating a tone and elaborating themes that they previously explored in Barton Fink. This time they explore the idea of an artists’ inner struggle in a less theatrical way, but one no less filtered through the cruel comedy of fate. Llewyn Davis also somehow emerges as a character even more ambiguously difficult than Barton Fink. In a way, this is the Coen’s Five Easy Pieces, but even more detached and cynical in its ambivalence towards its fascinatingly unsympathetic protagonist (after all, detachment and cynicism are likely the respective middle names of Joel and Ethan). The film would almost feel insubstantial and indulgent were that not also a theme central to the old folk music scene as well.
Given that the film is comprised of loosely connected scenes and character sketches, it’s an actor’s showcase and as always the Coens cast perfectly. Mulligan and Timberlake craft an amusingly frustrated folk duo whose offstage band name could be Heartbreak and flake. F. Murray Abraham gets the film’s best line and a juicy cameo that he delivers with all the gravity, bravado, and humor you’d expect. John Goodban briefly takes over the movie as a heroin addict trumpet player that is half-demon, half-human tragedy and so bleakly funny that you’ll wish the Coens were required by law to write the actor into every one of their films. Holding it all together is Oscar Isaac, singing his own songs, fearlessly avoiding sympathy, and bringing a weight of tragedy to his face in every scene. He’s subtle and generous to his co-stars, yet carries the film admirably. By the end, you probably won’t be sure if you even like his character and yet, you can’t help but be fascinated by him. It’s no coincidence that Isaac became a star almost immediately after Inside Llewyn Davis was released. He’s perfect in the role, almost as if The Coens wrote it with him in mind.
Now, I must confess that I have no particular love or affinity for the slice of music history that serves as the film’s setting. I mention that only because I feel like those who do will find even more poetry, sadness, and humor in the film than I. Those who do might even consider Llewyn Davis a personal favourite in the Coen canon. Approaching the movie as merely a Coen Bros. fan, it feels like one of their stronger efforts just not their best. That’s only because the bar for their movies is so high. Inside Llewyn Davis is certainly a personal and fascinating film that grows in stature through repeat viewings. It just ain’t Fargo. Personally, I find that the filmmakers’ delightfully cynical worldview and sense of cartoonish, yet grounded characterization always works best within a genre movie structure. But, that’s just me. I might actually be crazy. Regardless, Inside Llewyn Davis is a worthy entry in the Coen’s career and the Criterion collection. It’s more a reflection of just how many wonderful films they’ve made that I don’t rank amongst their very best.
As is the Criterion way, the Inside Llewyn Davis Blu-ray features a pretty flawless audio/visual presentation. Given that the official Blu-ray release from 2014 was already well done, there’s no huge difference in Criterion’s techincal presentation. It might even be the same transfer and that is in no way a bad thing. The film looks absolutely gorgeous, with the Coen’s typical wide-angle lens photography providing great depth and detail that sparks on Blu-ray. Likewise, the songs sound wonderful and full in the lossless audio track. There’s really nothing negative to be said about the presentation, beyond the fact that the last one was already pretty good. Which isn’t exactly Criterion’s fault, now is it?
Where the disc truly leaps into must-own territory is the massive special feature collection. There are some repeats (and fortunately they are excellent). The first repeat extra is a huge 43-minute making of documentary that follows the Coens from preproduction to post. It’s funny and fascinating stuff, particularly given that the Coens rarely speak about the productions, never mind allow cameras on set. The other repeat is a 101-minute concert film of all the music from the film, which is also a weighty extra worth diving into. Those two features were enough to make the last Blu-ray one of the most extensive ever released for a Coens flick. Now Criterion stepped up, so we’re only just getting started.
Kicking off the new supplements are a handful of features related to 60s New York folk scene that serves as the Coen’s backdrop. The first batch of extras are about the era, kicking off with an intriguing 17-minute documentary from the time called Sunday that has a nice cinema verite feel and a few eccentric characters who may well have inspired the Coens. The next is a 19-minute interview with Elijah Wald (who collaborated with Dave Van Ronk on his memoir), putting the movie into its historical era. He particularly sheds light on the pre-Dylan era of strange era of outsiders and wannabes who created the folk music revolution without ever actually finding success. Three more music historians (Robert Christgau, David Hajdu, and Sean Wilentz) pop up for a commentary to discuss the accuracy of the Coen’s film in greater detail on a scene by scene basis.
The final two new interviews focus on the Coens and they are doosies. The first features the Coens chatting with T. Bone Burnett about the music they chose and wrote for the Inside Llewyn Davis. Shot in black and white with animated interludes, the featurette feels like a short film in and of itself. A wonderfully well crafted interview that adds great insight into the music the Coens chose to explore in the film. Even better is a 40-minute interview with The Coens conducted by Guillermo Del Toro discussing the evolution of their career. It’s a fascinating and revealing conversation from the typically tight-lipped filmmakers. Del Toro is a talker and has no problems pulling that out of the Coens, getting them to chat up everything from their influences (four in particular and odd ones to be sure) to how their tastes have changed and how their approach to filmmaking has grown. For Coen fans, it’s a fascinating piece. The only disappointment is that there’s no time for Del Toro to grill them on every film they’ve ever made. Hopefully the trio will reunite for another chat somewhere in the future.
Does this deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
Overall, this is one hell of a release. No one does Blu-rays like Criterion and since the company is well aware this film was previously released, they go out of their way to ensure this release thoroughly trumps the previous release. It’s a must own for Coen Brothers aficionados and hopefully this is only the beginning of their relationship with Criterion.