Inside Llewyn Davis, the new film from the Coen brothers, is an odd hybrid of comedy and existential howl of despair. Set among the clubs, coffee shops and rented rooms of the New York folk music scene of 1961 it stars Oscar Isaac as Llewyn, a gifted but catastrophically self-centred performer whose efforts to establish himself as a commercially viable act are constantly sabotaged by his thoughtlessness and refusal to make the necessary accommodations of other people’s help and constructive advice. He’s repeatedly seen tramping through snowy streets to whatever kindhearted acquaintance he thinks he might be able to persuade to put him up for the night and his spare time between his very occasional gigs seems to be spent in arguing with and generally alienating fellow musicians, family members and record company bosses. About the only living being other than himself that he shows concern for is a ginger cat that he manages to misplace while minding a friend’s apartment.
Llewyn’s misadventures and lack of social niceties make for some very funny and sometimes winceworthy scenes, with dialogue as sharp and inventive as you might expect from the makers of The Big Lebowski and Miller’s Crossing. There are several genuine laugh-out-loud moments. But there’s also an underlying melancholic tone that makes his bumbling plight feel almost tragic at times, most notably during a speculative roadtrip that Llewyn makes to Chicago in order to try to impress a famed folk music impresario. His two travelling companions (one taciturn, one patronisingly garrulous) seem not just eccentric but disquietingly alien and the long car journey to a freezing, windswept Chicago comes over like an odyssey to the dark depths of Llewyn’s soul. The muted, soft-brown, colours that the Coens use for the bulk of the film give way here to deep wintry blues and near-blacks that couldn’t be a better choice for spelling out “All hope is lost”.
Llewyn’s one redeeming quality is that he is, despite all his arrogance and indifference towards the people who might help him, a pretty spellbinding guitarist and singer…which means that Oscar Isaac must be as well, as we’re treated to several unbroken and closely observed sequences of the man doing his thing, at live shows and auditions and at one point even in the passenger seat of a car. The Coens have always been good with music (witness the groundbreaking success of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack) and one of this film’s main pleasures is the way it’s saturated with stripped down folk songs that are captivating and authentic (or authentic-sounding, anyway. I’ve got no idea how many of the pieces here were written specially for the movie). The fingerpicking and close harmonies are gorgeous and even the deliberately cheesy tunes have a weird fascination.
You wouldn’t call Inside Llewyn Davis a feelgood film by any measure other than musical as it ends up feeling as weirdly unresolved and ultimately a bit unsatisfying as other recent Coen efforts No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man. It is however exquisitely made, with some great turns by the cast (Carey Mulligan is convincingly and formidably pissed-off as one of Llewyn’s one night stands) and an unusually affecting atmosphere. It’s certainly the best film I’ve seen about a talented but self-destructive acoustic guitar player since Woody Allen’s Sweet And Lowdown about fifteen years ago…although I guess there hasn’t been too much competition there. And it’s got the best cat acting ever.
Can I tempt you with another arthouse movie about miserable people with hopelessly dysfunctional private lives? Shame is the second film directed by Steve McQueen (the Turner Prize winning artist, not the motorbike-bestriding film star) and it’s as uncompromisingly bleak as his debut Hunger, which took as its happy subject the dirty protests in the Maze prison by IRA members and the hunger strike and eventual death of Bobby Sands. Hunger surrounded a remarkable 15 minute head to head sequence between Sands and his priest with a set of slow, virtually wordless tableaux of the prisoners, their cells and their guards that typically featured prominent detailing of shit-smeared walls and urine-beswilled corridors. It was all actually quite beautiful, albeit in a remorselessly excremental way. Shame is a couple of steps closer to the mainstream, and even boasts a script co-written by successful dramatist Abi Morgan that gives some reasonably sustained chunks of dialogue to its actors but in some ways it’s even more depressing than the earlier film, in which you could at least divine some motive for the misery the characters put themselves through.
Michael Fassbender, who played Sands in Hunger and looked like he hadn’t eaten for months, is lead character Brandon, who holds down an ill-defined but well-paying job in an office in New York, and seems to divide his free time between having meaningless sexual encounters and consuming absurd amounts of pornography via internet, videos and magazines. After a while it becomes clear that he spends much of his time at work indulging in the same activities, though none of it appears to bring him much pleasure or fulfillment. His frustrations are exacerbated by the arrival at his flat of his flaky and troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), whose problems don’t interest him and whose presence disrupts his cycle of no-strings sex and incessant masturbation. Conflicts follow, as does an attempt to forge a more conventional relationship with a co-worker, but the unflinchingly austere style of the film doesn’t lead one to expect a happy ending.
Shame is actually remarkably watchable given its decidedly non-feelgood theme and characters, although McQueen does sometimes seem to favour his carefully worked out compositions too much over giving the audience some reason to care about the damaged people he’s putting on screen. There’s a consistent wintry, if not downright sterile, cast to the cinematography that nicely complements Brandon’s lack of empathy with humanity in general, and the streets of New York can rarely have been depicted as so impersonal and unwelcoming. There’s plenty of sexually explicit scenes in the film, but all of them show the act as functional and joyless – this is definitely not one for the dirty raincoat brigade. You’ve got to wonder what negative theme McQueen will take on next – pride, maybe? Myopia?
Never Let Me Go is a reasonable enough adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s brilliant and understated novel but it adds nothing to the book and in places badly fumbles its key revelations. The story concerns three friends who grow up together at what appears to be an exclusive and unusual private school and gradually come to realise why they can never fully be part of normal society (apologies for vagueness, but it would be a major spoiler to go into detail) and Ishiguro’s prose is masterful: the events are described from the point of view of one of the friends, who sees nothing peculiar about her circumstances and her projected future, and the hints about what’s really going on are worked in with admirable subtlety.
The film certainly captures the tone of the book. The school seems believable, terribly English and polite, probably located in the Home Counties. A lot of the activities that make up the children’s day seem unorthodox, but hardly perverse or extreme, and the headmistress figure (played by a pitch-perfect Charlotte Rampling) is an archetypal firm-but-fair disciplinarian. It’s initially quite intriguing – or would be if the first thing we see on screen wasn’t an expository caption that gives far too much away. And if that wasn’t enough, we fairly quickly get a full-on info-dump from one of the teachers that robs the narrative of any mystery, and the film of any tension. Oh, and in case you were having trouble keeping up there’s regular voiceover from Carey Mulligan explaining where we are and who’s in a relationship with who. By the time we get to the third act, when the friends have reached adulthood and are meeting their destinies, the pacing has gone out the window and the film is seriously becalmed, with no real conflict and a pervading sense of inevitability. Turning up the strings on the soundtrack and getting the actors to cry a lot didn’t really elicit much of a response from this viewer, at least.
Still, it looks pretty good (lots of countryside and beaches) and the acting’s generally great (particularly Andrew Garfield as the shy and inarticulate Tommy), and I guess you’ve got to give them credit for being generally faithful to the source material and not introducing contrived dramatic episodes in order to keep the audience’s attention. Maybe some books just make better films than others.