I can still remember the day that the Dude and his rug careered their way into my life. I was 14 when I saw The Big Lebowski for the first time, and most of it probably went right over my head, but I never forgot ‘the Dude’. I never saw him as one of life’s losers, although he undeniably is. I just saw him as a man with a questionable taste in fashion who likes bowling and drinking milk. It is these characteristics that make the Coen brothers what they are and I am not the only one to whom they are so important. It is their ability to create a story about a runaway from a chain gang and call him Ulysses. They mythologise the ordinary; make life enchanting, not enough to make it seem anything other than the ordinary life it is, but just enough to change how you look at the world.
The nod to these heroes of mythologies past is felt in their most recent film. The figure of Ulysses reappears, but this time ginger and with a bit more fur than George Clooney. The cat which leads to Llewyn being dubbed ‘a folk singer with a cat’ is named Ulysses and reoccurs in the film as we observe his constant struggle to find his way home. Not only does this film see the Coen’s continuing in their love of the epic journey, but in the character of Llewyn, we see the return of their familiar hero.
Llewyn Davis is a man just about to fall off the edge of society, sleeping on sofas, living from pay check to pay check and getting beaten up in dark alleyways. He makes bad choices constantly and you shouldn’t like him. Yet he is sympathetic, idealistic and talented which puts you on his side during the moments that he is told that there is no money in his music. Oscar Isaac’s performance as this aimless and out-of-luck guy is wonderful. He carries the audience through with the perfect balance of frustration and sympathy. Despite wanting to scream at him, you cannot help but be drawn to Llewyn; not least because the musical performances are so powerful and they allow him to express everything he cannot with words.
The Coen brothers have never liked to pin down what their movies are about, or what they are trying to say, and fair enough, there is no need to define objectively what anyone should take from a film. The only worry with Inside Llewyn Davis is that this aim to not clearly define what the film is saying could veer into simply not saying anything at all. Certainly the film meanders from situation to situation and despite a serious of bad luck situations which are enough to rile you, the emotion of the film is detached. Yet this mirrors the character of Llewyn himself, his lack of interest in the future is echoed in the films cyclical structure, and like the mood of the film, he is detached from the world and still recovering from the loss of his singing partner. This is a loss that echoes the fall-out of the war, which is still breathing down the neck of this bleak and snowy New York. But for Llewyn, and for the film itself, it is the music which carries the emotional weight. It sends chills down your spine, and everything that Llewyn is struggling with is spoken through the songs. The film allows the performers the time to play a song right through to the end as this is the point at which it connects with its audience. It is these pivotal performances which give the film its emotional depth.
Despite being famed for a lack of research, the Coen brothers manage to embody the era in a few key aspects. They provide all you need to feel that you have been plunged right into 1960s America for that hour and a half, and there is nothing to tell you otherwise. Despite being a film which fools you into thinking that you’re not feeling anything, you come out only to realise that actually you felt everything at the same time, and listening again to the opening chord of any of the musical numbers will bring it all flooding back.
Inside Llewyn Davis may have more akin with A Serious Man than The Big Lebowski, but it is still unfailingly of the mind of the Coens. It allows you to see the world as they see it: an image which is profoundly melancholy, but humorously so. It is startlingly and blindingly truthful. Ultimately it gives you something to believe in.