Sunday, February 23, 2014

Talkin' Roots Music Blues

Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis

I've been trying to write about the Coen Brothers' new film, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) for weeks without success. The film is receding in my memory now so if I don't put something on (digital) paper now, I probably never will. It's not that the film is impenetrably obscure. It's not. It's as watchable as anything the Coens have made. It's just that it's also hermetically closed, a moebius strip of a movie. It's one that doesn't let you get close to it or hang a thesis on it. Maybe it's just me. In truth, this is a film that hit me at a low point. It wasn't a film that I really needed at the time, which makes my relationship to it so complicated that I don't know where to start.

I think the word that best describes Inside Llewyn Davis is "morose." It's a grey film filled with grey characters doing grey things in a grey world. It has a downer of an ending and a downer of a beginning--a given, since it ends where it begins. It's a portrait of disillusion and failure. Its protagonist, the eponymous Llewyn Davis, is depressed and angry and confused at the outset. It's a state of mind from which he never emerges during the film. It tends to make the experience of watching it less pleasurable than it might be, especially if one is experiencing some of the same existential crises as Davis.

Note, here there be spoylers.

Inside Llewyn Davis follows the fortunes of its title character, a folk singer plying his trade in New York during the folk revival of the late fifties/early sixties. Davis is at a crossroads. His musical partner has thrown himself off a bridge and Davis is having to go it alone as a solo act. He plays the folk clubs by night, couch surfs with whichever friends will put up with him afterward, and spends his days trying to scrounge up money and work. He's failing at most of these activities. Worse, he's been sleeping with Jean, the wife of his friend, who has just informed him that she's pregnant and needs Llewyn to arrange an abortion. On top of this, he's suddenly responsible for the cat who escapes the apartment where he's crashing until he can return it to its home. Cat in tow, Llewyn takes an opportunity to drive to Chicago with a jazz player and his associate, which turns into a terrifying dark night of the soul. There's only disappointment waiting for him in Chicago, and when he returns to New York, he decides to give up on music, but in order to get back into good graces with the merchant marine, he has to pay back union dues. The only way he knows how to make the money is with music...

Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis

In another movie, Llewyn Davis would find his mojo and some kind of redemption once he's on the verge of giving it all up. The Coens are smarter filmmakers than that. They don't provide the audience an escape valve. Instead, they offer up a glimpse of what might have been with a cameo-in-silhouette of the era's transformative folk singer. Davis, meanwhile, heads into an alley to take a beating for being an asshole (note: that other folk singer is famous for being an asshole, too). The beating is metaphorical, of course, It's the same beating he takes at the beginning of the film. It's a Sisyphean rock that rolls over Davis again and again as the movie goes on.

Oscar Isaac and Garrett Hedlund in Inside Llewyn Davis

The ingredients of "the hero's journey" are embedded in the plot of the film, but never was that narrative deployed to such impotent effect. Davis's night-shrouded journey to Chicago is a classic trip to the underworld, with F. Murray Abraham's club owner acting the part of patron deity, though Davis fails to gain his patronage. Abraham's Bud Grossman fills the role of Pluto tolerably well, given that Pluto was the god of wealth as well as the underworld. "I'm not seeing any money here," he tells Davis, which is a mortal blow.

John Goodman in Inside Llewyn Davis

I started thinking about this film in mythological terms when my partner asked me whether or not John Goodman plays the same role he played in O' Brother Where Art Thou. He doesn't, exactly, but in a lot of ways, he does. In that film, he was the cyclops that Ulysses meets on his journeys. In some ways, he's closer to the devil in Barton Fink. Regardless, his Roland Turner is some kind of marker representing the film's roiling id. When he tells Davis that as a jazz musician, he's expected to play all of the notes, he becomes a kind of fury, tormenting Davis through his long dark night. And when Davis abandons Turner--is Turner dead from an OD?--leaving the cat with him, he becomes a millstone on his conscience. When, on the return trip from Chicago he (maybe) hits the cat with the car, it only plunges him deeper into his own spiraling descent.

Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver in Inside Llewyn Davis

Davis is rootless, which is one of the film's subtler ironies, given that he's hitched his wagon to roots music. He's also kind of an asshole, which explains his dwindling stock of friends who are willing to put up with him. Whether he's an asshole because he's depressed or not is never explicitly outlined, because we never see him when he's not depressed. We can deduce that he's naturally an asshole, though, from his relationship with Carey Mulligan's Jean and her imperative that he find her an abortion doctor. Davis has done this before, which speaks ill of him even when he's not depressed. When he discovers that a previous girlfriend chose not to avail herself of the doctor he paid, Davis finds himself with that most banal of dude problems: the responsibility of unexpected fatherhood. The Coens know Davis better than most filmmakers, who might be be tempted to send Davis on a quest to find his lost son. Instead, they represent his abdication of the role with a sign he passes on the highway during his dark night of the soul. This subplot reminded me of Al Pacino's character in Scarecrow, a film I saw a couple of months ago. In that film, Pacino's character is a kind of naif, but he's got a son somewhere in Pittsburgh and when he tries to re-enter that child's life, the kid's mother drives him insane by telling him that the child was stillborn. That plotline or variants wouldn't work in this film because Davis is entirely too self-involved and paralyzed by his mood.

Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis

I should mention that Carey Mulligan gives an amazing performance in this film. Every profane word she speaks drips with bile and venom, which is not something she's had the opportunity to do in films before.  This is a film with uncommonly good casting. Oscar Isaac is superb as Davis, while every other part reflects the Coen's gift for casting unconventional faces, or conventional faces applied in unconventional ways. Justin Timberlake isn't an actor you would expect to find in a Coen movie, but his whitebread good looks are perfect for Jim, while his musical talent is ideal. Timberlake has really grown on me over the last few years. He's really good here. Likewise, nothing in Garrett Hedlund's filmography suggests the performance he gives as Turner's minder. There are ridiculously attractive people in this film who the Coens still manage to shade into the grotesque. That's a gift, that is.

Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis

This doesn't have the same kind of jaunty, replay-able soundtrack that O' Brother had, but it has the same awareness of roots music as the conveyor of myth. Inside Llewyn Davis isn't the same kind of film, though, because the Coens aren't the same filmmakers they were then. This film is very much of a piece with their output since No Country for Old Men: dark, inward, ambiguous. It certainly doesn't have the same kind of showy visual splendor. There's a calculated drabness here that's thrown into stark relief when the cinematography plunges into the territory of film noir mid-film. The drabness isn't designed to please the eye so much as it's designed to evoke a mood, a time, a place. Some of the shot framings--the one immediately below, for example--seem designed to resemble alternate-universe early Bob Dylan album covers. One of the film's other little ironies.

Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis

This is less concerned with entertainment--though it is entertaining--than it is with looking at that particular character at that particular moment in time. You could make an argument that the appearance of Bob Dylan is one of the hinges of an aborning cultural revolution soon to destroy the world where Jean and Jim could be successful or where a novelty song like the one Davis plays on could be successful. That song, about Kennedy and the space program portents things, too. It's funny--a joke, even--but it's a signifier. I like to think that if Davis were ever able to get over his depression, he'd be more suited to the coming cultural landscape of the 1960s than his friends, but he won't get that moment or that opportunity. He'll go off to the merchant marines and continue to take a beating because it's in his nature. Sisyphus? Here's your rock. There's the hill. Get to work.

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