Friday, May 23, 2014

The Cartography of Grief: Inside Llewyn Davis's quiet epiphany

Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis

Director: The Coen Brothers

Reviewed: 22 May 2014

jamesintexas rating-- ***1/2

The Coen Brothers never fail to make interesting films, but Inside Llewyn Davis challenges and demands much out of its audience with less of their trademark madcap hijinks and more introspection and melancholy. Llewyn is a haunted, less than successful musician in 1961 New York City, facing frigid temperatures and the increasing coldness of friends who has alienated. Living off of the kindness of others, Llewyn wakes up on strange couches, hustles for gigs to make money, and contemplates leaving his art all together to join the Merchant Marines. He carries the cat of friends with him, unable to return it after it ran out as he was closing the door. He bums a ride to Chicago to see a legendary producer and make his pitch. He considers his art and what it means and what it would mean to give it all up.

The structure of Inside Llewyn Davis is a riddle of sorts, playing with time, and showing the same scene more than once, revealing its protagonist to be in some sort of cosmic loop. Appropriately, the film essentially demanded that I watch it twice right away, and I was happy to oblige. Llewyn seems trapped in an impossibly cold winter, wandering and searching, moving around but never getting anywhere--an apt metaphor for the creative process and the artist hellbent on making his or her art. When a producer announces to Llewyn, "I don't see a lot of money here," I feel that heartbreaking analysis could be commenting on the Coen Brothers' films as well. I am thankful that Fargo and No Country For Old Men probably brought smaller, less commercial films like A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis to light. To have a career in the arts means some sort of acknowledgement of that statement and balancing commercialism with artistic integrity. The furious balancing involves compromising or failing.

Oscar Isaac gives a mournful quality to his performance as the self-destructive Llewyn, and it is important to see him as big-hearted and simultaneously capable of cruelty to those around him. Llewyn never reveals everything going on under his surface, but things bubble out at inopportune times, and in many cases, Isaac has to play him as unlikable. He is at his most likable are when Llewyn finds himself onstage singing, often shot in golden yellow light, moments of incandescence. These moments of brilliant performance and a soulful voice contrast with the trudging of the artist through the wet snow, stepping into a frozen puddle, ill-equipped for the vicious weather. Haven't we all been ill-prepared for moments in our lives?

The supporting performances are all first-rate: Carey Mulligan stands out as a bitter fellow musician; Justin Timberlake is effective as a cheery, commercial comrade; and John Goodman steals scenes as a jazz playing conversationalist. The film makes traveling cross country seem mind-numbing with the very sounds of the tires on the road drumming an incessant thumping on the soundtrack. The songs of the soundtrack key in on the emotional moments of the character and stand alone themselves as great fun, something the Coen Brothers have been doing for a long time. In a way, the film touches back to O Brother, Where Art Thou? with its musical interludes and love of the recording studio and process. How "Please, Mr. Kennedy" did not get nominated for Best Song is beyond me; I have been humming variations of it for over a week.

Without a lot of flash, Inside Llewyn Davis offers a portrait of the artist having to break free of his own self-destructive tendencies. Perhaps instead of being at odds with the cosmos, Llewyn is simply accountable for his own words and actions, receiving comeuppance for them in order for him to change. To watch Llewyn's epiphany, my hopeful reading of the film's last line (with a wonderful song accompanying it, swelling in the background) is to celebrate the shot of Llewyn closing the door more carefully, deflecting a past conflict back, and keeping what must stay on the other side where it belongs. I really loved this film, and it has given me much to think about.

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