Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis

Not much happens in Inside Llewyn Davis, the sixteenth—and arguably most soulful—feature from the inimitable Joel and Ethan Coen. Its narrative is elliptical, to the point that it ends literally where it began. It chronicles a week in the life of a New York folk singer (Oscar Isaac, extraordinary) who shuffles from one indignity to the next; he crashes at various houses ("Got a couch?"), scrounges for any gig he can find, and huddles to keep warm, lacking a winter coat to protect him from the city's bitter chill. It systematically deconstructs its title character, establishing his talent and promise before methodically breaking him down through a series of humbling, escalating defeats. Not much happens, and yet for Llewyn, so much does.

This may sound like a curious endorsement, especially if you insist on triumph and happy endings from your movies. Yet while Inside Llewyn Davis is piercingly sad, it is by no means miserable. For one, it's funny. The Coens have always had a keen eye for offbeat humor (remember Nicolas Cage's nightmarish vision of Tex Cobb in Raising Arizona?), and they regularly sprinkle Llewyn's misadventures with bizarre, playful moments—an addled agent's familiar patter with his longtime secretary, a cantankerous musician's (John Goodman) incessant grumblings, a very persistent cat—that add minute, flavorful detail to his world. The movie is also a proud celebration of American music. Working again with T Bone Burnett, the legendary producer who turned the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack into a phenomenon, the Coens have assembled a diverse anthology of scraggly folk anthems, from the clipped, wistful "Shoals of Herring" to the gentle, elegiac "Fare Thee Well" (both performed by Isaac with aching tenderness). They've also created the boisterous original piece "Please Mr. Kennedy", a toe-tapping jaunt in which Isaac, Justin Timberlake (pleasant), and Adam Driver (hysterical) collaborate to deliver two of the most jubilant minutes of cinematic music-making you'll ever see.

But the music is secondary to the man, and even as Inside Llewyn Davis pays tribute to the historic power of American folk songs, it filters its admiration through the prism of Llewyn's particular desires and failings. It would have been easy, and perhaps satisfying, for the Coens to make a joyous hymn about a virtuoso's ascent to stardom, or to flip the script and deliver a dirge about a naïve musician's struggles in a corrosive music industry. But Llewyn conforms to neither of these prototypes. He is instead a prideful professional, one who treats his abilities not as disposable entertainment but as serious craft. (When a kindly woman at a dinner party implores him to play them all a song, he barks, "I'm not a trained poodle!") Yet as much as he hones his considerable talent, he cannot quite translate it into actual success, the prospect of which consistently tantalizes and eludes him. As a result, Llewyn's plight—he is an avowed artist who can make minimal money from his art—is readily identifiable.

Which is not to suggest that it is typical. On the contrary, the Coens give their protagonist distinct, jagged shape, most notably by ensuring that he is not an especially nice guy. Llewyn has little patience for others, not even when he's asking them for money, and he tends to value people for their amenities (again: "Got a couch?") more than their personalities. He also happens to have casually impregnated a friend's wife (Carey Mulligan, exhibiting uncharacteristic acidity). He is vain, selfish, and spiteful. Yet his evident flaws make him that much more human, and the genius of Isaac's performance—in addition to his actual singing, which showcases the remarkable range and rich timbre of his voice—is that he makes Llewyn sympathetic without compromising either his brittle rage or his morbid worldview. Like Michael Stuhlbarg's contemporary Job in the Coens' A Serious Man, Llewyn suffers repeatedly, but he tends to regard his circumstances with exasperation rather than despair. This subtlety extends to the Coens, who chart his circular journey with their trademark craft—cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel does particularly outstanding work, most memorably in his gorgeously muted depiction of a solemn, snow-covered highway—but here imbue it with graver hues of melancholy and grief. The result is a movie that is deeply sad, even as it's also vibrantly alive and acridly funny.

Roughly two-thirds of the way through Inside Llewyn Davis, Llewyn auditions for a record producer, played with authentic austerity by F. Murray Abraham. He sings "The Death of Queen Jane", a ballad of utter, naked yearning, and Isaac's sonorous voice captivates his audience. At least, it captivates those of us in the theatre; Abraham's character remain impassive throughout. But as soon as Llewyn finishes, he delivers his assessment with blunt, equally naked honesty: "I don't see a lot of money here."

Perhaps not. But there is more to life than money—there is also art and beauty. Yet that arch sentiment means little to Llewyn, and the tragedy of Inside Llewyn Davis is that, for all of its hero's dedication and artistic prowess, he's still just another folk singer, and he still needs that winter coat.

Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

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