The following is a post by our new Gospel Spam contributor Ben Riley. He will be writing film reviews for Gospel Spam. Feel free to welcome him in the comments below.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about man who is a complete and utterly pathetic failure. Llewyn (Oscar Isaac, in a brilliant performance that was unjustly ignored on the awards circuit) leads a life so dark and mediocre, it’s almost funny. He’s a folk musician trying to make it in the pre-gentrified Greenwich Village music scene of 1961. Nothing particularly significant happens, and that’s almost the point. The hour and forty minutes of events we are shown are important not to a perceptible classical plot, but to creating a portrait of a character, an evocation of time and place, and a comment on mediocrity, failure, and the uncertainty of existence.
This is the 17th film directed and written by Joel and Ethan Coen, and it might not be too early to call it their best. It plays like a beautiful, meloncholy dream of a bygone era. The vision of the historic Greenwich Village is suffused with smoke and espresso steam, softly kissed by dim, pale light, and full of decaying structures; not the kind of decay resulting from neglect, but that variety that evidences long, loving usage. Not just the buildings, but the way of life set forth are near unto collapse. Llewyn himself seems worn out and tired. He had a partner (whose vocals are sung delightfully by Marcus Mumford), and for a time their fortunes were on the rise. Then, he threw himself off the George Washington Bridge, and the public quickly makes it clear Llewyn lacks appeal as a solo act. Welcome to the Coen universe.
Llewyn’s life, no thanks to himself, is full of kind, understanding characters who insure that he is able to survive. Outstandingly, a benevolent older couple endlessly supports his musical whimsy and allows him to live on their couch, despite his sullen, churlish ingratitude. He even loses their cat, and in a hilarious sequence mistakenly brings back a look alike in its place, neglecting to notice that the creatures do not share the same gender. This cat is strangely important: it is the only character in the film that brings out any selflessness or virtue in Llewyn, who dauntlessly cares for the homeless creature; that he inadvertently runs down the unfortunate feline in a car is characteristic of his relentlessly dour life.
There’s a wonderful supporting character portrayed by Carey Muligan. She plays Jean, a friend and the wife of another friend; the first thing we learn of her is that she’s been impregnated by the endlessly loserish Llewyn; she informs him in no uncertain terms that she wants nothing to do with his child, and that consequently he must pay for her abortion. She, along with his sister, chides Llewyn in rather strong te for his lowness of life, but we sense that she really cares, that she wants better things for him. To listen to her would perhaps do him a deal of good, but he is too stubbornly arrogant to do so.
A second act interlude from the New York setting is taken when Llewyn decides to take a carpool to Chicago to audition before Bud Grossman, accompanied by a would-be poet (Garrett Hedlund) and an elderly jazz singer (John Goodman). This is the most humorous passage in the movie. Goodman’s character sleeps in intervals between constant talking. He drips with mean spirited humor, and strange anecdotes, and bizarre bragging about his supposed magical powers, or just about anything, so long as he holds a monopoly on all audible words. He bluntly informs Llewyn that his late partner’s suicide was performed improperly: “You’re supposed to throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge. George Washington Brigde? Who does that?”
And then, after his journey to Chicago, Llewyn returns to New York, at which point the film took a turn I did not expect: All the opening scenes are mirrored with slight variation, down to Llewyn being beaten by a stranger behind the famed Gaslight Cafe (ostensibly due to a heckling incident of the previous evening). The screen fades to black as he declares “Au revior!” to his mysterious mugger. What we have witnessed is a story without beginning or end, a short, neorealist escape into another’s life.
I have said that watching Inside Llewyn Davis is something akin to a dream. And like many of the best dreams, it’s full weight cannot be registered immediately after it is over. Certainly, it is impossible to take in the film at all if one is not willing to avoid merely view it, but to soak in it, to experience it. It is full of sadness, gloom, and a cynicism of life itself; consider how the ending implies that Llewyn’s life will never improve, that it will always be a cycle of dead ends. Yet through the cynicism, there are moments of pure poignancy and heart of which most movies can only dream. There is a whole film worth of emotion in a shot of Llewyn attempting to wring the snow out of his seasonally inappropriate footwear, a pointless endeavor, given that he must venture back out into the cold. But though there are moments of striking emotion, it is the subtle, gradual building of empathy for vividly real characters that truly engages us from beginning to end.
In the end, if not as accessible as many of their efforts, Inside Llewyn Davis seems to be the legendary Coen brothers most benevolent, sympathetic film. It is hopeless, but it wants to hope. It is dark, but it wishes there could be light. It is cynical, yes, but it wishes it could believe in something better. This is, no doubt, the best that the Coens postmodernist worldview can offer. Where there is no truth there can be no hope worth having, only a wishful desire after it. There is no attempt to hide the awful hopelessness; no existential leap of faith such as can be found in Fargo. Here are two artists mature enough to plunge straight into the nihilistic conclusions of their own view of life with tragic honesty.
Is it worth braving the dark murk of Inside Llewyn Davis? This will largely depend on the viewer. While the depressive tone will likely hold back the casual entertainment seeker, its intellectual pleasures and artistic qualities are inestimable for those to whom they are appreciable. If it is not exactly the kind of film we are accustomed to admiring, it might do us some good to learn to do so. For as long as the Christian audience continues to flock to movies based on a misconceived evaluative concept of cleanness and good messages, there will continue to be a pelthora of borish and cowardly films flooding Christian bookstores; when we start to appreciate the films we watch based on true artistic merit, there will rise up Christian filmmakers to produce them.
Content Precaution: Inside Llewyn Davis is rated R for language including sexual references (An excellent resource for safe viewing can be found at Clearplay.com), and deals with strong thematic material. It is not appropriate for young viewers.