Five shots: Inside Llewyn Davis & Nebraska

Inside Llewyn Davis

For their latest movie, the Coen brothers (Ethan and Joel) weren’t able to work with their cinematographer of choice (Roger Deakins) because he was working on another film, so they had to settle for French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. I say, “Settle for,” but Delbonnel has an extensive history in French cinema and his contribution the Harry Potter films (shooting The Half Blood Prince) was the only one in the series to be nominated for the Academy award for Cinematography.

Inside Llewyn Davis follows a young folk singer as he tries to survive a week in New York city in the dead of winter. He has no coat, no money, and his few friends are starting to be unimpressed by his constant bellyaching and freeloading. To say the movie has a plot would be generous: Llewyn meanders here and there, and the world never gives him sufficient reason to pursue anything. If anything, it conspires against him, although we wonder if there’s a chance he would succeed as a musician (and if not as a musician, at least as a friend) if he would just try, even a little bit.


In this first shot, Llewyn is knocking on the door of the apartment where his friends, Jim and Jean, live. Each location in this film is distinct, but several of them press closely around Llewyn as he tries to figure out his life and where he’ll be sleeping next.


It’s not easy to make the outdoors look as small and manageable as a film set. And it’s probably rare that you want to. I’m not exactly sure what it is about this shot, but I remained riveted on the back of John Goodman’s character as he hobbled to the men’s room. The angle of the roof helps contain the shot and focus attention on the character.


Roger Deakins is well-known for his habit of putting the light sources within the shot as opposed to outside it. In this third shot, it appears Delbonnel may be paying homage to this habit. We see all of the light fixtures hanging from the ceiling. With the red chairs on the floor and the white globes above, the effect is kind of psychedelic, which fits the dreamlike journey Llewyn has with these two crazy characters.


This shot has already been discussed over on HitFix, where Kristopher Tapley chose it as one of the best shots of 2013. The camera slowly pushes in on Llewyn as he plays for Bud Grossman, the music manager who could change his life and set him on the green, green rocky road to success. Llewyn’s guitar is in the light, while his face is in shadow. Bud Grossman is lit harshly from one side, creating a huge black hole between him and Llewyn. Needless to say, the audition doesn’t end the way Llewyn wants it to.


While Inside Llewyn Davis is wonderfully shot, there weren’t that many single frames that leaped out to me. For the fifth shot, I picked a frame that says more in the story than it does by itself. In some ways, it’s a recap of the previous shot. Llewyn visits his father in a nursing home and plays him a beautiful ballad, one of his favorites. His father listens without a single glimmer of recognition. He stares out the window as if thinking about something he misplaced a long time ago.


Nebraska is shot in black and white, and Tapley at HitFix gives a brief explanation why, based on an interview with the director of photography: “The goal was to capture a stark landscape where seemingly nothing happens, providing a glimpse of a simple reality one would yearn to rise above.” The story concerns a man named David who travels with his father, Woody, from Billings, Montana, to Lincoln, Nebraska, to claim a Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize. Like Inside Llewyn Davis, a large part of the film concerns a road trip. It was interesting to see how differently the two films portrayed the experience of driving across America.

Nebraska is more concerned with watching people relate to one another from a respectable distance than direct the audience’s attention to specific places. That said, there are quite a few instances of photographic jokes, where the framing itself becomes funny.


The first time we see Woody Grant, he’s hobbling along next to a Montana freeway, looking about as disoriented as you can get. A policeman stops, picks him up, and takes him in. The shot above comes when Woody’s son David comes to get his father from the police station. It doesn’t really have the full effect without David’s resigned disappointment, but the shot effectively conveys Woody’s smallness and weariness. The five empty chairs around him emphasis his loneliness as well.


In this shot, David and his brother Ross discuss what to do with their father. Woody is just offscreen, working on the engine of the truck. Almost every line in the frame directs attention to the brothers’ conversation, and we get the sense that Woody might be listening in.


Once again, the frame emphasizes how small and inconsequential Woody is at the end of his own life. This scene takes place in a graveyard, where Woody’s wife Kate ruminates on all their buried friends and relatives. Incidentally, Nebraska was directed by Alexander Payne. You can see a gravestone displayed the last name Payne on the left side of the frame.


I love this shot. These are Woody’s living relatives, gathered to watch some kind of sporting event on TV – football, probably. The shot continues far longer than is comfortable, and no one but David fidgets. The placement of one of the relatives closer to the camera on the right side of the frame cuts David off from the rest of the group, which makes him stick out even more. Also, the old man on the far left should be in more movies.


After visiting a friend’s farm, Kate and Woody drive off without Ross and David. The sons appear in the rear windscreen, running as fast as they can. Woody’s complete oblivion is almost as funny as Kate’s surprised expression.