Thursday, December 12, 2013
Review: Inside Llewyn Davis
On a recent podcast, JB and I talked about who deserves the title of Greatest Living Director. The common wisdom is that it is Martin Scorsese. I won't argue that he's not deserving, and I haven't even seen The Wolf of Wall Street yet. But as soon as we finished recording that show, I immediately thought of the Coen Brothers. I should have mentioned the Coen Brothers. With two (maybe three) exceptions, they have built a career of brilliant, original films that are each like tightrope acts -- the smallest of missteps could cause every one of them to crumble.
Their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, is another such movie. So much of it should not work. All of it does.
The movie is being marketed as something of a comedy, but it isn't, really. It's funny in that often absurd, always deadpan way that the Coens are always funny, but it's not a comedy. It's actually achingly sad -- a movie on an endless loop of grief and pain and impossible obstacles, many of them of the main character's making. Inside Llewyn Davis is not a drag because it's filled with gorgeous music, wonderful performances and a lot of levity, but it is, at its heart, a tragedy of a potentially great artist's undoing.
A word about Oscar Isaac. Most viewers will probably recognize him as Carey Mulligan's doomed husband in Drive, but he was also one of the best things about Sucker Punch (in which he got to sing if you've seen the extended Director's Cut) and got to show off his troubadour talents in last year's little-seen 10 Years. He has quietly been building an impressive resume of smaller character parts, but this is the movie that's going to make him a star. Isaac is terrific, internalizing all of the pain and integrity of Llewyn Davis and hinting at depths of humanity without ever making excuses for him or trying to make us "like" him. It is not a showy performance, but it is a brilliant one. Isaac also does all his own performing in the film's musical sequences, of which there are many. This is crucial, as having the actor switch to a prerecorded track would have yanked us out of the authenticity of the moment. It's unfair that Isaac be this good an actor PLUS be able to play guitar and sing so well. The movie is impossible to imagine without him at the center. It's as though Oscar Isaac was invented just so Inside Llewyn Davis could exist.
I could keep singing the movie's praises (See what I did? Singing?), but it becomes unnecessary at a certain point. It's a great movie and one that deserves to be seen. It has gotten better every day since I saw it. Images stick with me. Moments that at first felt obtuse carry a weight seldom felt when we go to the movies. Besides, there is simply too much to unpack, too much to talk about here. Is this a film about how no man is an island? Is it a treatise on the difficulty of retaining one's artistic integrity in a world full of novelty songs like "Please Mr. Kennedy?" In of the movie's best scenes, Llewyn travels miles to meet with a record producer and performs for him a gorgeous rendition of "The Death of Queen Jane," only to be told simply "I don't see a lot of money here." One can imagine the Coens hearing that exact same response on any number of their films. We must consider ourselves fortunate that, like Llewyn, they pushed on.
Heartbreaking as it can be at times, Inside Llewyn Davis is not a movie devoid of hope. Yes, the cycles continue. Yes, we will make the same mistakes. But eventually, we'll keep the cat inside. Eventually, we can sing the harmony.