You may wonder, as you relish their stridently un-nostalgic re-creation of the Greenwich Village folk scene, just when Joel and Ethan Coen became so intimate with failure. Film after film, they give us bums, schlubs, and the occasional upright cop who can’t always eye-of-the-tiger themselves into the triumphs that the leads in splashy Hollywood entertainments are supposed to. While often funny and alive with winning performances, Inside Llewyn Davis finds the brothers in a dark mood, exploring the near-inevitable disappointment that faces artists too sincere to compromise–disappointments that the Coens, to their credit, have made a career out of dodging. The result is their most affecting film since the masterful A Serious Man.
This time around, their ne’er-do-well/punching bag is a talented folksinger Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac with an intense, only slightly needy charisma, and the strained, sunken eyes of Lenny Bruce. Isaac’s singing is strong, and we hear lots of it–traditional tunes in the bluesy, impassioned style of Dave Van Ronk, the Village star from whom Bob Dylan nicked an arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun.” There’s something simultaneously reverent and aloof about about Davis’s treatment of a song like “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”–he seems not to be singing to the crowd at the Gaslight but to archivists at the Smithsonian. Whether mere music fans feel something like enjoyment seems beside the point.
Of course, principled asceticism is hardly the route to fame and fortune. While he waits for his ship to come in, Davis bounds from couch to couch and borough to borough. The Coens, always adept at bringing audiences up to speed through smartly chosen visual detail, quickly hip us to the particulars of his career, but they leave compelling mysteries: He has an album out, Inside Llewyn Davis, that the label owner–Jerry Grayson, one of those great Coen faces–insists has yielded no royalties. He recorded another a few years before as part of a duo, but though his partner, Mike, is no longer around, the record, meanwhile, is, and Davis schleps a box of remaindered LPs about with him as he trudges along, homeless in winter. The New York he slumps through is gorgeous, each shot like an outtake from the slushed-streets photo shoot that yielded the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
Dylan, though, had Suze Rotolo to cling to. Davis doesn’t even have a winter coat, and the one woman in the movie with whom he has any chemistry detests him. (She’s Jean, well played by Carey Mulligan as a furious spitfire offstage but a placid harmonist in performance.) Worse, he also lacks that Dylanesque will to create and destroy and then create again–he just wants to be an excellent folksinger, and with each setback he becomes increasingly prickly.
Davis suffers with steely composure for a while. The world’s indifference to sincere young artists is always taken, at first, by sincere young artists as a badge of honor. But as his situation becomes more desperate, he gets scrappier, angrier, Isaac’s performance growing more moving as the character becomes less likable. A last-ditch roadtrip to Chicago to meet a famed producer played by F. Murray Abraham proves a miserable highlight: The Coens achieve frightening beauty with headlights, windshield, and precipitation. (They’re also great with subway rides, fleeing cats, the absurdly cramped hallways that lead to New York apartments, bad dinner parties, and the grim chilliness of winter puddles.) When, ever, does an entertainer finally find that elusive success by fleeing New York (or L.A.) for Chicago? I mean, besides improv comics?
There are comic gifts here, too. The Coens offer up a recording of a first-rate novelty number (produced, like all the excellent music here, by T-Bone Burnett), a quick parody of those strenuously Irish balladeers The Clancy Brothers, some high-weird monologues from John Goodman as a Doc Pomus–like jazzman, and Mulligan has killer insults to expectorate at Isaac. But the film is slight in its narrative–folksinger has a bad week and considers chucking his dreams for life as a sailor–while gently profound in its implications. With surprising compassion, the Coens have torn open not just a long-gone historical moment but also a true and painful and personal one that will forever recur: when someone dedicated to living for art faces the fact that art might not be enough. How many filmmakers who have achieved such success still remember so well what it’s like to have none at all?
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The title of All Is Lost, another strong big-ticket film hitting this year’s NYFF, promises despair, but this near-silent, you-are-there survival story proves less harrowing than Inside Llewyn Davis. Who knew that trying to live through a shipwreck is a more pleasant experience than trying to make it as a folksinger?
Robert Redford stars along with a yacht, a lifeboat, a shipping crate, a million miles of pitiless ocean, and what might be the movies’ most indefatigable hairpiece. I can’t say for certain that the septuagenarian hunk’s Kennedy-thick mop is augmented–maybe Redford hit the genetic lottery yet again. But director J.C. Chandor ‘s film achieves its considerable suspense through painstaking verisimilitude, its boat and sea always behaving as boats and seas really do, so it’s somewhat disappointing that when Redford’s old man character gets dunked in storm his improbable old man hair isn’t washed away. If that is his natural mop, God bless him, but wouldn’t the film have been more powerful–and this man’s plight even more desperate–if they had fitted Redford out with a mortal’s bald pate? It’s the one thing in the movie that doesn’t feel credible.
The rest is all thrilling process of a sort Hollywood isn’t much good at anymore: just a person taking clear and meaningful action in a cramped, precarious space. In the first moments, Redford’s character, hereafter just Redford, awakens on his fancypants boat to discover that even the insulated rich sometimes take a hit from globalization–in this case, in the form of one of those one-size-fits-all shipping crates, a floating boxcar that has spilled off a trawler and cracked Redford’s yacht. The rest of the film is him trying not to die. His radio is fried, the boat is sinking, and the nearest shipping lanes are hundreds of miles away.
In a way, it’s an earthbound variation on Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, with one inhospitable element swapped for another, and desperate folks hauling every bit of strength and ingenuity up out of themselves to survive. Chandor shrewdly handles the complex cause-and-effect of boat life–it’s always clear what each rope Redford handles is attached to, and there’s wonderful tension in moments where Redford is clambering from bow to stern–those surfaces are slick, those waves unpredictable. The film is, in one respect, more daring than Cuarón’s: We’re given only a few hints about this man’s pre-crisis life, which is just fine. The will to survive is moving enough–here it is, stripped to its elements.