Sunday, November 10, 2013
LEFF: "Inside Llewyn Davis", a masterpiece, should we wonder why?
Bob Dylan sang about how times were changing. When he was electrified from cord-drumming, frayed folksinger into one of the most influential rock starts of all time, he was scared as all shit and his first albums were blown in the same winds that flurried the countercultural long hairdos of hippies and easy riders. Those are the biopics of legendary historical definition we know. But Inside Llewyn Davis takes place in 1961, right before Dylan arrived to the New York folkscene, and hums about the ragged waifishes whose verses never met acclaim but had to be sang there and then if the unfathomable, shadowed roots of change and success of folk music were to grow.
They were a meager coterie of young folk musicians who had their own culture, away from the America of the McCarthyism, and despised the ephemeral, gooey pop commercial hits the radios played. They gigged in the heavy scented cafés of The Greenwich Village, dark holes where this secret language expressed the native rawness, honesty and the hoarse authenticity of the early music, without ever glimpsing at what the world was saving for three-cord players. They were a tale of suspension, of in-between. That's were Llewyn starts, joking that if it's not old an it's not new, then it's a folk song.
Our guy is a penniless, couchsurfing homeless, has a passive-agressive relationship with a woman he impregnated who needs to abort, can't get representation nor royalties, doesn't sell, loses a cat and so on. Brave and brilliant storytelling create characters and tone (two of strongest elements of the coenesque) not according to the brothers' career but to the specific sense of time, place and people they are portraying: Llewyn Davis' life is also suspended and his journey, like the lyrics and melodies of the time, is the most sincere, authentic, emotional film the Coen's have ever made. With them, I'm used to feel fear, anxiety or existential angst, but this tragicomedy made my bursts of laugh crumble into deep sadness.
Cats are the simplest of the comic-reliefs and the few sources of momentary serenity in Llewyn's life (the others are the songs). But they're also reminders of delicious Coen trademarks - they are quirks and codes for one of the most beautiful, oneiric shots of the filmmakers' filmography. There are eerie establishing shots, with weird lines and perspective and John Goodman is a treat as their typical boaster character - a comatose Jazz musician who represents the «Folksongs? I thought you said you were a musician.» attitude and walks with the help of two crutches (wink at Wilder's Double Indemnity).
The brothers are exquisite craftsmen of plot (remember Fargo and Miller's Crossing crime twists) but, and summoning the cat's name (Ulysses), it recalls O Brother, Where Art Thou episodic framework, with an open ending that hits us with a punch in the belly and locks us in the same suspension, despair and uncertainty of the whole picture.
The cast is top notch: Oscar Isaac scores the best performance I've seen this year with restrained anger and desperation; Carey Mulligan is a beautiful, furious woman who, in other life, could've been the perfect love interest; Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver are hilarious; Garret Hedlund is silently gorgeous and idealistic, has a Jack Kerouac semblance and recites a poem echoing the Beat Generation; Stark Sands could have his own movie with only five minutes on screen; and the rest keeps up.
The details of reconstruction are precious, and the atmosphere and hue seem lifted off the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. They keep playing with genre like no one else in the business, mixing the best of the biopic (Llewyn is inspired by Dave Von Ronk's posthumous memoir, The Mayor of the MacDouglas Street), the musical (the film is pin-pointed around full-length performances of folk songs) and the road movie.
But Inside Llewyn Davis is much more than narrative and stylistic accomplishment. The Coens created an epically intimate story about an all-time looser, a guy who will be loading forever while others make money, history and newspaper covers. It is a profound interrogation on the premise of life, where no matter how good you are, whatever you do, you'll hit on things, things will hit on you, and the future always wears a hooded cape (or a suit, but then it stands in a somber alley, like in a film noir). Abandonment and loneliness make one wrestle with integrity and despair, and the only thing capable of heating a pair of wet socks is a song that also happens to shoo the misery.
When a desk clerk assuredly asks Llewyn «You're not Hugh Davis' kid are you?», Llewyn finally cracks: «Why not?»
Maybe, again, Dylan was right: «So it ain’t no use to sit and sigh now, darlin’ / And it ain’t no use to sit and cry now / It ain’t no use to sit and wonder why, darlin / Just wonder who’s gonna buy you ribbons when I’m gone.»