True beauty exists in the putridity of humanity. Some filmmakers work well within this milieu, finding those heartbreaking stories in the dark, damp corners of our mundane existence. Two such films I saw this week seem to be spiritually linked by their perspectives: Alexander Payne’s brilliant “Nebraska” and the Coen brothers “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
We’re lucky to have the Coen brothers. Even their most half-baked efforts are usually worth a watch, if only to revel in their eccentricities. I won’t claim to love every Coen brothers movie; in fact, I downright hate some of them. Yet, I line up eagerly each year to see what they will do next, and have probably watched everything they’ve done at least twice. Some of their films get better with subsequent viewings; some get worse. The point remains: The Coen brothers bring a unique voice to American cinema, even when they’re not firing on all cylinders. “Inside Llewyn Davis” serves as testimony for their efforts.
I would group “Inside Llewyn Davis” with films like “A Serious Man.” They provide dark views into tortured souls seeking validation from an unforgiving world. I found the film compelling, despite having some trouble making sense of it all. As well, the movie fails to garner the rhythm needed to induce audience immersion. I wouldn’t call it a bad film, but I would go so far as to call it a difficult one.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Issac), a folk singer in 1961, deals with a fair share of personal tragedy. His folk singing partner commits suicide, leaving him to venture out into the music world on his own. Homeless and sleeping on the couches of charitable friends, he tries to scrape by on talent. Though a gifted guitar-picker with a marvelous voice, he lacks the kind of marketability needed to make him a star. He endures a Sisyphean journey as he attempts to find some sense of worth to his menial and meaningless existence. An abrasive character, I could sympathize with Davis but found trouble empathizing with him.
This cinematic ballad of a starving artist is beautifully composed and there’s some great music. The whole movie epitomizes the brutality of life. Despite its attributes, it still falls short of a masterpiece.
“Nebraska” covers similar territory. It tells the story of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), an elderly father battling dementia. Upon attempting to walk from Billings, Montana, to Nebraska to claim one of a Publishers Clearing House-style million-dollar prize, his son, David (Will Forte), attempts to reason with him. But Woody’s detached mind leaves him pretty set in his beliefs. Unable to make headway, David hits the open road with his father on a wild goose chase.
Beautifully filmed in black and white with some devastatingly human performances, “Nebraska”is nothing short of superb. Dern and Forte achieve comedy while maintaining depth. Forte, typically a comedic force, emotes desperation as his character struggles to understand his father, whom he’s never connected with. Further hindering his efforts is his father’s mental decay into catatonia.
Alexander Payne excels with this kind of material, finding the beauty in melancholy. This fits in perfectly with movies like “Sideways” and “About Schmidt.” He thrives when telling stories about broken people in need of mending. “Nebraska” constitutes Payne’s best film and one of the year’s best.
Both movies are worth watching, but “Nebraska” comes in as the superior of the two. It’s a rare movie that makes life seem simultaneously sad and beautiful; it affects in a way so few movies do. “Inside Llewyn Davis” shares a bleakness with “Nebraska,” but never finds the same level of warmth and humanity. It’s the difference between an interesting experiment and a modern American classic.DETAILS
Inside Llewyn Davis
★ ★ ★ (out of 5)
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman
Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ (out of 5)
Starring: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb
Directed by: Alexander Payne