Watching Like a Writer is a movie review series that looks at films from the perspective of a fiction writer, complete with one writing takeaway, and an exercise that will help better your fiction!
Review — Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
The Coen Brothers make films in all kinds of genres. Comedies, dramas, westerns, thrillers. But what unites these films, and almost all of their movies really, are two elements. One, the characters in their movies are always specific and well drawn, from the lead, all the way to the bit parts. There is no random actor in any scene of Inside Llewyn Davis. The assistant to Llewyn’s agent is just as memorable as, say, John Goodman’s abrasive backseat driver.
And two, they always create entire worlds, the way the director of a science fiction film would create another planet on screen. Set in 1960s New York and Chicago, this film has an incredibly vivid and memorable world to revel in. Inside Llewyn Davis is the greatest film the Coen Brothers have made since No Country for Old Men. That it missed out on a much-deserved Best Picture nomination is a bit of a head-scratcher. Aside from a slightly rushed third act, and an ambiguous ending that makes the end of No Country look like a Happily Ever After, this is a terrific film.
Oscar Isaac gets the kind of breakthrough role all younger actors can only hope for. Llewyn Davis is having a rough time. He’s a talented guitar-playing folk singer who can’t catch a break. He’s crashing on couches from night to night. He might have impregnated a girl who hates him and who wants to have an abortion. His agent can’t do much for him. Very few believe in him. He gets stuck with someone’s cat and spends most of the movie with it as his unlikely companion.
Of course, this is a Coen Brothers movie, so don’t expect a simple plot. Story elements are planted in the first hour, and then few are paid off. It’s very much an episodic journey, with most of the supporting characters popping up for a scene or two, then never showing up again. This is very much Llewyn’s story, and there’s never the sense that he is going to get a happy ending.
The Coen Brothers always get natural performances out of their actors, and this film is no exception. Oscar Isaac’s character has many layers, with moments of humility, moments of rage, and everything in between. Part of the reason the movie feels anticlimactic at the end is that I never wanted the journey with this character to end. Justin Timberlake and Garret Hedland show up in small parts, but the most memorable are Carey Mulligan, as a scorned woman who may or may not be carrying Llewyn’s child (her intense hostility makes for some big laughs), and John Goodman, chewing the scenery in the backseat of a car.
One of the great joys of the film is the music. The movie opens with Llewyn singing, and at least eight or nine songs play throughout the running time. It has been a long time since I watched a movie and wanted to rush out and buy the soundtrack, but it happened big time with Inside Llewyn Davis (even the song with Adam Driver shouting “OUTER SPACE” is fun).
Another pleasure is the gorgeous cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel, which has a beautiful dream-like hazy quality. While this movie was mostly passed over for Academy Award recognition, at least Delbonnel’s cinematography got a much deserved nod. I love that the camera-work is never too precious; one scene that made me laugh was a ride on the subway from the POV of a cat.
Inside Llewyn Davis had me in its grip from the opening minutes and kept me there for most of the running time. Unfortunately it starts drifting a little too much in the last forty-five minutes, and its abrupt ending made me say, “That’s it?” I didn’t need a phony Hollywood ending with Llewyn reuniting with his long lost son or daughter, but the film ends up feeling like there was still another 10–20 minutes to go. There’s so much to love here that I’m still a fan of the film, but the ending needed more resolution. Overall this is a fine film, with a strong cast, superb cinematography, and stand-out songs, and is well worth checking out.
Watching Like a Writer
Inside Llewyn Davis makes me think about how to utilize music in my fiction. Music is everything when it comes to movies — I would argue that most great films wouldn’t work half as well as they do without a strong score and soundtrack — but such is not the case when it comes to books and writing. You can describe a song the character is listening to in a given scene, but the effect of the song itself doesn’t really translate to the reader. Worse, if you actually insert lyrics from the song, you can be sued for copyright. But I still take music seriously in terms of what I listen to as I’m writing the novel itself, and I also like to insert songs a character is listening to from time to time and have that song play on what the character is feeling. For example, in my new YA thriller, there is a scene where the protagonist is struggling to enjoy the Christmas season as he recovers from a horrific trauma, and so when “Jingle Bell Rocks” comes on the radio, he just about throws up he can’t stand the song. Music is more effective in film over books, absolutely, but you should still at minimum think about the kind of music your characters listen to and where the songs might appear in the story.
Think about the protagonist in your current work-in-progress and write down a list of five songs that would be on his or her iTunes playlist. What would the songs be? How do they inform the kind of person your protagonist is?