Inside Llewyn Davies: why the Coen Brothers should save the cat

6 Feb

Oscar Isaac as Lwelyn Davies. With cat.

Caught up with Inside Llewyn Davies at last, and seriously – am I the only person in the world who doesn’t see it as a hallowed masterpiece? Seems that way. It scores 7.9 on IMDB, and its posters are constellated with five-star reviews. And not from Nothingradio FM or, either: from Time Out, the Independent, the Telegraph and Empire.

I bow to no one in my admiration for the Coen Brothers. When Blood Simple came out, even before I was a journalist and critic, I rushed home and filled four pages of my diary with thoughts about the film. I’ve seen every new release of theirs since. But Inside Llewyn Davies

Here’s the thing. Forget all the rigid rules of cinematic structure they teach you in scriptwriting class. That’s just the framework, the skeleton, the safety net for people not yet touched by the breath of genius. The Coens, they inhaled that breath. They don’t need to follow all the rules. But they’ve broken a doozy in this one. Their protagonist is not only thoroughly unsympathetic – a self-pitying, self-isolating, success-sabotaging beardy folk singer – but he doesn’t change. There is no arc. There is no character development.

The Coen Brothers aren’t stupid. I think they know this. And I think they are doing it as an experiment, a gigantic wheeze, just to see if they can get away with it.

They telegraph the lack of character development by repeating the closing scene at the beginning. Llewyn Davies is trapped in his own circle of hell; pick any point on the cycle, it will look pretty much the same. It’s not exactly the same scene – Bob Dylan, glimpsed in Davies’ audience during the opening, is now shown singing on stage as Davies leaves the bar, which will certainly change the world Davies inhabits  – but Davies himself remains and will always remain marooned inside his own bubble of failure.

They also telegraph his unsympathetic nature with a cinematic in-joke: Davies doesn’t save the cat. The late Blake Snyder’s screenwriting guide Save The Cat has become something of an industry bible since it was published in 2005. Its title refers to Snyder’s opening advice to make your protagonist sympathetic. Boozy, misanthropic, violent and washed-up he may be, but have him save a cat within the first few scenes and the audience will root for him all the way. In Inside Llewyn Davies, the hero not only hits a cat with his car, he… well, I don’t want to write any spoilers.

Inside Llewyn Davies is well acted, beautifully shot, lovingly recreates an iconic place and time in the Greenwich folk scene of 1961, has some terrific song sequences bravely played out in full, and offers the usual deliciously baroque cameo from John Goodman (as a clapped-out junkie jazz man with, literally, rose-tinted spectacles). I got a lot more out of it than most movies I see.

But it didn’t engage me. It didn’t touch me. I didn’t care. It was as lifeless to me as an old album cover from before I was born.

All the Coen Brothers’ latest experiment in rule-breaking proves to me is that there are some script-writing rules that should never be broken.

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