Tuesday, January 26, 2016

2016 Movie a Day: Inside Llewyn Davis

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac is trapped in a cycle. He's trapped professionally, struggling as a folk singer-songwriter in 1960s Greenwich Village. When we see him perform, he is clearly talented and respected by the audience, but he's unable to make that next crucial step that would see him break out of the coffee shops he cycles through. He's trapped artistically, playing the same old songs while nursing the pain he feels after the dissolution of a musical partnership that we get the sense was much more successful. He's trapped personally, with a small group of friends he mooches off of, cycling through them as he couch surfs through New York. He'll stay with one group until they start to get sick of him, then call up the next name in his address book. The film he's stuck in, as well, seems to cycle through the same few settings and backdrops, repeatedly circling back to previous locations after roaming around for awhile.

Inside Llewyn Davis, the 16th film from Joel & Ethan Coen, is a film that probably improves the more familiar you are with their work. The Coen Brothers have crafted a very distinct style of storytelling that took me awhile to pin down. In every movie you can consider the writers (and sometimes directors) the gods of that universe, and it goes without saying that everything within that world is predetermined by them, and the characters are merely following the path of predestination. The subtle difference with the Coen brothers is that they create meticulously planned out clockwork worlds, where everything is moving and interlocking at various times during the movie, and then they populate this world with characters who not only don't realize their story is predetermined, but also seem like they might at any minute be able to break out of the path their gods (the Coens) have set for them. It's as if they've figured out the world, but allowed their characters to explore at their own pace. With this concept in mind, Inside Llewyn Davis can be read as the Coens both acknowledging that idea, and possibly affirming that there is no escape. Their characters are stuck wherever they decide to place them.

As I said, Llewyn Davis is stuck in a cycle, or possibly a series of them. The film eventually reveals a metaphysical aspect that might suggest Llewyn is stuck in a cycle more cosmic than just that of your standard struggling musician. At every turn, no matter what he tries, he has no hope of escaping. Llewyn treks across New York trying to earn enough money to pay for an abortion for a girl he may or may not have knocked up, but he's also trying to prove that his artistic talents aren't being wasted. He visits his agent looking for royalties, which doesn't pan out. He joins in on a recording session for a deeply silly novelty song that he feels is beneath him, but he needs the money. He pointedly opts for instant cash rather than performing credit and royalties, which the film doesn't need to tell us is a bad idea. With everything falling apart in New York, he leaves for Chicago to meet with a mythical promoter who can make or break careers, only to hear the crushing answer that he just doesn't have what it takes. Maybe if he was in a group, the promoter advises, but of course that ended badly for Llewyn the last time, so he's not about to try it again.

Poe Dameron, Kylo Ren, and Justin Timberlake

That final blow seems to be the actual final blow, and Llewyn attempts to just quit music and go back to having a normal paying job, but through a series of deeply ironic mixups he finds his efforts stymied at every turn, and almost sheepishly heads back to performing at the same old coffee shops. Something in him has changed, though, and Llewyn performs a song he used to do with his old partner, and he performs it with more strength and emotion than we've seen in him so far, and the crowd seems to respond to this. It seems like this might be the start of a slow uphill climb for our hero, until, wait, it turns out he's back exactly where he was at the start of the film. Both in an emotional sense, but in a very real-world sense as well, where the dialogue and actions are exact duplicates of the dialogue and actions in the opening scene, right down to the beating he gets in an alley behind the coffeeshop. Llewyn is trapped in another cycle, in himself, in this one moment in his career and life.

What I've said so far might make Inside Llewyn Davis seem like a dry, possibly even difficult movie but Inside Llewyn Davis is also funny, though maybe not as funny as their comedies. Even before John Goodman shows up as a drugged out, bitchy old jazz musician that threatens to derail the entire movie and pull it into his orbit, the film has some great wry humor. I should also add that I've never been as emotionally moved by a Coen brothers film as I was during this one. In fact, I'm trying to think about a time when any Coen brothers film moved me, and I'm drawing a blank. The brothers don't really deal in emotion, they deal in archness and irony, with everything viewed from a slight remove. But Inside Llewyn Davis has a real heart beneath its surface, and emotional currents in the film unlike anything else I can think of in their filmography. Partly that may be the music, and the performances, which always come weighted with emotions when deployed in film. But also it's the character of Llewyn, who Oscar Isaac plays as bitter and prickly, but with a clear pain motivating him. The mystery of the dissolution of his musical partnership is pieced together slowly, but once it falls into place it explains the motivations and relationships between almost every character in the film.

It's all the cat's fault

Towards the end of the film, after the failed meeting with the music promoter, Llewyn is driving back to Chicago while the car's owner (a man who picked him up hitchhiking) sleeps in the passenger seat. As the snow falls lightly, Llewyn notices the turnoff for Akron, a town his ex-girlfriend moved to, and where he just learned he has a 2 year old child. He thinks briefly about turning off, he sees the city shining in the darkness down below in the distance. This moment feels like the Coens throwing a rope to their poor, suffering character. Here is a clear way out, an exit both literal and metaphorical from the road he's on. At that moment it seems like his one out, like his life could continue happy and contented in that picturesque image. Maybe not a famous musician, but a happy person. But Llewyn lets the moment pass, he doesn't turn fast enough, and instead the car speeds back to New York, where the entire thing is doomed to repeat again.

Final Rating: 4.5(out of 5)

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