' ' Cinema Romantico: Inside Llewyn Davis

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis

Robert Frost did not hone in his craft at the Gaslight Lounge in Greenwich Village in the early 60’s but, nevertheless, his words kept returning to me in the wake of The Coen Brothers’ latest stylized opus. “Two roads diverge in a yellow wood.” It’s no secret that the Brothers Coen often function less as impartial observers than puppet masters, choosing a protagonist and then putting him/her through their own brilliantly storyboarded version of cinematic Wipeout! Even their sunnier characters are made to face the gauntlet – Marge Gunderson’s relentless optimism is tested, The Dude’s strikes and gutters philosophy is questioned – but I’m not entirely certain they have ever crafted a character whose fate seems determined so much by himself.

Over and over two roads diverge in a metaphorical yellow wood and the title character, Llwellyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a failing, fading folk musician, a chronic couch surfer, in the dead of winter with no winter coat, is made to choose which road to take. Yes, yes, you could argue that Joel and Ethan Coen are crafting the interlocking freeway system that keeps leading Llewyn to these varying forks, but I could counter that as writers they do a keen job creating a character whose prior life before the film’s kickoff clearly would have led him to this specific point. His choices have resulted in the need to make these decisions. And while Llewyn is another character – there have been several at the movies this year – resistant to easy empathy, Isaac still imbues him with a sort of humanity, albeit a standoffish, self-destructive humanity.

And anyway, Llewyn is an artist. Trust the art, not the artist, right? Then again, I’m not entirely sure Llewyn trusts his own art, let alone himself. Several times, including the requisite story bookends, the movie looks on as he simply sits down and strums his guitar and sings. It’s clear he possesses talent, even if it might not be otherworldly (like the croaker with the poofy hair going by the name Dylan who shows up in silhouette near movie’s end), but a particular scene in which he lashes out and demeans his folk singing as a mere “job” changes our perspective. These are not joyful tunes in sync with the harmony of life nor defiant odes to life’s banality nor material that seems interested in sparking change or leading protest, these are grief-stricken yodels of defeat. We are not watching a star being born, we are watching a star that never quite was crushed by the weight of gravity.

One of the film’s most striking scenes involves Llewyn’s spur of the moment audition for a gruff record producer (F. Murray Abraham, perfect in a single scene cameo). In a different film this might have gone in another direction, but Abraham is both blunt and courteous. He actually presents Llewyn with an opportunity, though it’s an opportunity of compromise and so Llewyn declines. Why exactly? Hubris? Artistic integrity? Some mixture of the two? I can’t say I know for certain, I can’t say for certain that Llewyn knows either. Like Alvy Singer ripping up the ticket right in front of the traffic cop, Llewyn just can’t help himself. Any semblance of sun peeking through clouds is ignored until it recedes.

There is virtually no sunshine in the film. It forgoes the black and white of Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” and, yet, the visual palette of “Inside Llewyn Davis” somehow feels even more cruel. All the color has been drained from Davis’s face, eliciting a vibe of the walking dead as he trudges from place to place in the desperate hope that someone will put him up for the night. The person he calls on more than any other is Jean (Carey Mulligan), his former flame who is now dating a different chirpy folk singer (Justin Timberlake). Mulligan, so well-known for her graceful countenance, plays against type here as a woman worn-down and impatient with Llewyn’s aimlessness and bad attitude. She essentially does not complete a sentence without including a swear word directed at Llewyn. After all, she’s just found out she’s carrying his child.

This, we swiftly ascertain, is a common refrain for our title character. There is another woman referenced whom he impregnated and helped get an abortion. That situation takes a predictable curve initially, but rather than become the focus it merely lingers. Until eventually, suddenly, Llewyn is made to face it in a particular way. That happens regularly throughout the film, opportunities for him to go in a different direction, all laid out for him like a shiny new second chance, and each time he willfully shoots it down. Even when he seems set, whether by choice or no choice, to dedicate himself to his on-again, off-again occupation as a merchant marine, it goes awry. And it goes awry all on account of his own lazy dismissiveness. No one has ever repeatedly pushed that symbolic boulder up the hill with such bitter indifference. Sisyphus and a cat named Ulysses (that isn’t Llewyn’s but that he dutifully carries around like a Ginger Tom penance). Yeah, it’s the Coens all right.

As with any Coen film, a sense of the surreal pulses throughout, from a cross-country journey that comes across like a hunger-pang hallucination to a nighttime alley encounter that serves as the denouement. Suddenly we realize the film has come full circle, the end was the beginning, we are where we started, so fitting because it underscores the lack (the want) of any progress. If we are the sum of our choices then perhaps the place Llewyn ends up is where he was always meant to be.


Anonymous said...

Boy, reading your review makes this sound like such a great film. Unfortunately I'm not as fond of it, though I LOVE Isaac's performance. I dunno, I guess I'm not smart enough to *get* The Coens ;-)

Nick Prigge said...

You know what's crazy, Ruth? I wasn't hugely enamored with the film either. When I re-read the review, it makes me sound like I am, and I guess I kind of ADMIRE it but......

I'm still working out my feelings on this one. But you're totally right about Isaac, he's dead on, pulling you in and repelling you at the same time.

Candice Frederick said...

hmmm this felt very un-Coen like to me. it has good things about it, but i was generally underwhelmed.

Nick Prigge said...

It is un-Coen, I think. They usually have such contempt for their characters but I felt like they really pitied Llewyn, really wanted him to get himself together, but at the same time knew they had crafted a character that WASN'T going to get himself together.

Sam Turner said...

I'm not always a big Coen fan but I did love this, one of my films of the year.

I think you're spot on with the character manipulation. There is just enough here happening to Llewyn and just enough that he is making happen to himself (or, rather, not making happen to himself). The one part of the film that I thought clearly didn't work (the car ride with Goodman) is a rare bit where the Coen's push the manipulation too far, creating the brick wall for him to bang his head against where, actually, he's perfectly adept at creating his own.

Nick Prigge said...

That's a really great diagnosis of the car ride, which I agree, did not work. I swear, sometimes the Coens just can't help but get a little too spacey.

Anonymous said...

I don't know when I'll get around to reviewing this, somehow I don't feel like doing so. It's one of those films I appreciate but not love, if that makes any sense :D