INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
There are some Coen-brothers movies - Fargo and O Brother, Where Art Thou? and True Grit come immediately to mind - that, because they exude such palpable filmmaking energy and are so spectacularly quotable, I wanted to talk about immediately after first seeing them. Then there are the rarer Coen-brothers movies, among them The Hudsucker Proxy and Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading, that I didn't feel much like talking about afterward, mostly because I didn't enjoy them much on a first go-round. (Though I've consequently become a big fan of Joel's and Ethan's Hudsucker and Burn, in the case of Intolerable Cruelty, second and third go-rounds did nothing to improve matters.)
And then there are Coen-brothers movies such as the new Inside Llewyn Davis, a work that is, I think, so good that I don't want to discuss it for fear of not coming close to doing it justice.
On the surface, the reasons for the movie's greatness are bountiful and easy to pinpoint: great performances, great directing, great writing, great photography, great songs, great production design, great great great. But still haunted by the film, as I am, two days after seeing it, I find that this tale of a struggling artist amidst the Greenwich Village folk-music scene of 1961 has crept under my skin in ways only a handful of other films have this decade. A narratively simple, emotionally fathoms-deep work in which either laughter or tears - or a combination of the two - could be considered exactly the right response at any given moment, Inside Llewyn Davis is a singular, nearly indescribable achievement. It's a comedy that hurts and a tragedy that you can't help giggling at, and for all of the variety on its creators' combined, 28-year screen résumé, it still feels quite unlike anything the Coens have ever before delivered.
Our hero, although he does nothing in the movie even mildly heroic, is the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), an exceptionally gifted singer professionally thwarted by his nearly off-the-charts senses of entitlement and self-loathing. Addressing friends, enemies, family members, and new acquaintances with the same air of privileged hostility, Llewyn spends his days in pursuit of cash and his nights crashing on the couches of those kind or foolish enough to take him in. And every once in a while, he even lands a gig - primarily at the West Village's Gaslight Lounge, where his soulful tenor and relaxed guitar skills endear him to those fortunate enough not to know Llewyn personally. Rather than offering a traditional plot, Inside Llewyn Davis instead presents us with a few days in the life of this sad, angry, and phenomenally talented man as he attempts to keep himself afloat, loses and finds (and loses again) a cat, and takes an ill-fated trek to Chicago in the hopes of landing a permanent gig. But while little, in the strictest of terms, "happens" in the Coen brothers' latest, you might still find its effect overwhelming; the film's gnawing despair is leavened by bursts of unanticipated humor, and its bleakness is offset by examples, especially in the music, of hope and wonder and grace. This may not be the life Llewyn dreamed of or wanted, but it is his life. Forever demanding more, thinking he's owed more, he's just too solipsistic to appreciate it.
There are scenes and images here, all stunningly well-shot by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, as unutterably fine as any in the Coens' canon: the discomforting dinner party in which Llewyn makes his hostess (the lovably dotty Robin Bartlett) cry when she deigns to sing; Llewyn's audition for a nightclub bigwig (F. Murray Abraham, simultaneously approachable and imperious as hell), who listens to the singer intently before responding, "I don't see any money here"; the sight of the cat Ulysses (another of the Coens' frequent Homer references) watching as street after street passes on the long subway ride away from his home. And with the writers'/directors' ears as marvelously attuned to region- and period-specific dialogue as ever, Inside Llewyn Davis' actors are uniformly excellent. The gloriously nuanced Isaac, whose vocals couldn't possibly be bettered, pulls off the spectacular feat of making you care, and care deeply, for a profound jerk who doesn't care enough about himself, and there are memorable turns by Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Max Casella, Stark Sands, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver - the latter two of whom partner with Isaac on the terrifically goofy, jaunty, space-age novelty song "Please, Mr. Kennedy." (I may have only seen the movie once so far, but I've watched the YouTube clip of that number dozens of times over.)
Yet when all was said and done, I think what floored me most about Inside Llewyn Davis, even more than its sublime presentation, was the realization of how sincere it was. For maybe the first time in their careers, the Coen brothers don't appear to be standing in judgment (even comedic judgment) over any of their characters here; wild and improbable and borderline-slapstick events may happen to Llewyn and others he encounters, but the film's reality is never for a second sacrificed. With this work, Joel and Ethan appear to be staring directly into the heart of an artist's fear and frustration and hunger, and what results feels like the most honest movie we've yet been treated to by these cinematic giants; even the film's Möbius-strip presentation seems to speak truthfully about the eternal cycle of disillusionment and disenchantment for those unwilling or unable to look at the world beyond themselves. From 2007 to 2010, we were graciously treated to a new Coen-brothers movie every year. Inside Llewyn Davis is the first we've had since then. I'm thrilled to report that the long wait was absolutely worth it.
Exceeding even the most optimistic expectations, director Peter Berg's grim war drama Lone Survivor - the true-life story of an elite Navy SEAL team searching for a Taliban leader in 2005 Afghanistan - made nearly $40 million in its first weekend of wide domestic release. Way to go, discerning movie-goers! Or perhaps, "Way to go, movie-goers who wanted to see an ass-kicking action pic with Mark Wahlberg and actually wound up at a really good movie!" With Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, and Taylor Kitsch as Wahlberg's comrades-in-arms, the film's title correctly suggests that there won't be a lot of surprise in the narrative. But this is a movie that doesn't need a lot. Berg's blunt, effective staging keeps you on edge while the uniformly outstanding performers continually engage your empathy, and Lone Survivor gets at the horrific detail of battlefield wounds, and the pain accompanying them, like few other war films I can name; you may not always want to watch, but Berg's clinical, clear eye allows you to without fear of the film crudely reveling in the carnage. Most happily surprising of all is the way the movie explores the complexity and confusion of its particular siege: Trapped on that Afghan mountain, how, exactly, are the SEALS supposed to know who's a friend and who's a foe? Berg's outing is taut, scary, unexpectedly funny - against all odds, there's a terrifically amusing routine involving a duck that comes at Wahlberg's highest moment of peril - and remarkably empathetic toward everyone (but the Taliban) concerned. I also feel absolutely no remorse for catching Lone Survivor and three other titles instead of The Legend of Hercules this past weekend. I've apparently got plenty of company.