Given the recognition they have attained over their incomparable career, it is completely baffling to witness the tremendous modesty and total lack of vanity with which the Coen Brothers talk about their films. Their latest work Inside Llewyn Davis is a musically driven character study of a man who is essentially not very likeable and for that he is all the more human. When asked about their process the Coens simply explained how they never seem to garner the same excitement that making their first film provided them with, but they always try. “We really don’t work that hard,” said Joel Coen, a statement that is hard to believe when juxtaposed with the iconic characters and unforgettable stories they have created.
Without any reservations one can say they have earned themselves a place with the masters of cinema to be studied and imitated for years to come. For this specific project, Ethan Coen mentioned that choosing the songs was essentially part of the writing process in order to construct a cohesive story in which the tunes would enhance the dramatic elements. They certainly succeeded at making their latest effort another triumph in their filmography.
Even much more interesting is the reverence and complete adoration that those in other departments of the cinematic process express towards the directing duo. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel praised the fact that the brothers know exactly what they are talking about when requesting a certain look, unlike other directors who don’t get involve in the technicalities of the process. The joined effort between Delbonnel and the seasoned filmmakers resulted in opaquely vivid images that blended seamlessly with the melancholic atmosphere of the picture as a whole.
On the acting front, the Coens returning muse John Goodman spoke of his blind trust towards their material and how much they enjoy each other’s company on set. “They are smart, and they are funny, and they remind me of kids I hanged around with when I was a kid,” said Goodman about the cinematic geniuses. According to the veteran actor his small part as the drug addicted Roland Turner speaks of what the eponymous character might one day become if he continues on making the wrong choices.
Played by the astonishingly talented Oscar Isaac , Llewyn was a role that required very specific things from whoever was bringing him to life. Not only does that person had to be a musician but also he needed to be able to act, and as Joel and Ethan mentioned, that was not an easy to find combined set of skills. Issac spoke of the rigorous and obsessive hours he put in to master the musical facet of his character. Of the Coens’ process he said, “They don’t know what they want, they know what they don’t want”, which he thinks also applies to the way his character, Llewyn, navigates his world.
Working once again with T-Bone Burnett on the music department seemed like an obvious choice especially in a film that reveals the nuances of the story through its songs. As Oscar Isaac described him, Burnett was the “musical Mr. Miyagi” who worked with the actors in order to help the directors elicit the best performances from them. The musician talked about the Coens idea of recording the songs live on set in long single takes, a risky and organic decisions that paid off at the end. Burnett went on to praise Isaac’s openness to learn and to work with him in shaping his performance through music, which is something that he loves about working with actors.
Winners of everything that there is to win in the film world, from the Academy Award to the Palm d’Or, the Coen Brothers are in a league of their own in terms of their creative power. Their films are all very different on the surface but they share a tone and a subdued sophistication that transforms them into unpretentious visual poetry. They rid their universes of falseness and create their unique version of honesty with a certain quirkiness and delightful wit. With Inside Llewyn Davis they take a chance and venture into something special and evocative, yet authentically their own. This is by far one of the best films of the year, and one of the most memorable works of their career.