Directors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman
Well it’s been a while, but I’m back to the blog. And for my first review of the new year, it seems only appropriate to start with the good ol’ Coen bros. While I was brimming with excitement to watch Joel and Ethan’s latest endeavor, I walked into the theater knowing that my absurd expectations could never be met. I thus spent the following couple of days defending the film and deconstructing it until I came to the conclusion that I should just take the film for what it is: a musically driven, visually striking film about a man on a journey. Sound familiar? No, this isn’t quite “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” but the soundtrack might tell you otherwise.
From the film’s opening track, “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” we are transported into the world of the wandering musician. The year is instantly 1961 and we float around a forlorn Manhattan during a particularly bitter winter. True to the directors’ nature, the brothers create a mood that is unmistakably painful and dark, while still maintaining an element of comedy (though this film is by nature one of their more serious pieces– “A Serious Man,” anyone?). The gorgeous use of cool tones, shadows and snowy backdrops make the city look like a snapshot in history, and the set design captures it perfectly: everything from the glasses to the gas stations and diners are on point. Definitely worth watching if even for the nostalgic aspect (it should be noted that I was probably the youngest in the theater by a good thirty to forty years).
This film is more a portrait of an era and a personal trek than a character study, though the craftiness of Llewyn’s character is impossible to overlook. While the Coens do not focus on why Llewyn is the way he is, they do throw in some interesting background details (i.e. Llewyn’s musical partner’s suicide) to dramatize the scenario and perhaps explain some of his passionate outbursts. Instead of wasting time and dialog on Llewyn’s character development, we are dropped directly into his world. The Coens cleverly surround Llewyn with extreme contrast characters to point out exactly what makes him unique. Even if we don’t know who Llewyn is (shocker, neither does he) we at least know who he is not. He certainly is not Troy Nelson, the military-boy singer, or Mitch Gorfein, the wealthy Jewish Sociology professor. The more people Llewyn surrounds himself with– including his nagging sister, Joy, and his hateful one-time lover, Jean– the more alone he becomes. Llewyn can’t seem to win, and we are dragged along on his quest on the naïve hope that one day he will catch a break.
Llewyn, the not-quite-protagonist fictional version of the real-life folk musician Dave Von Ronk (phew) is part lethargic, part ambitious, part pitiful, part admirable. I’m honestly still not exactly sure what to think of him. Perhaps the biggest falling point of the film (am I even allowed to say that?) is the lack of any real growth in Llewyn’s character throughout his journey. Yes, the whole point is that he is continuously knocked down (figuratively and literally) and never truly progresses. But you’d think that maybe, just maybe, Llewyn’s stubborn attitude would alter slightly through all of the obstacles facing him (trudging through the snow to Chicago, losing two cats, being completely broke, just to name a few). Maybe that’s what makes the film brilliant, or maybe it makes it undeveloped, but either way, once Llewyn’s odyssey comes full-circle, we’re left just about where we began.
What is important to remember about this film is that it is first and foremost about folk music and the time that it defined. The Coens themselves stated that when casting Llewyn’s character, they looked for a musician first and an actor second. Oscar Isaac filled both roles almost seamlessly. The brothers aimed to create a work that emulates their frustration with the sell-out nature of the entertainment industry, and they did just that, while telling a tragic story in the most beautiful way possible.