Inside Llewyn Davis opens in 1961 with the title character in a Greenwich Village bar with an acoustic guitar, singing a folk song to a small, rapt audience of young people. Glasses clank on the tables as he pleads, “So hang me, oh, hang me.” When he’s done, the applause and whistling are hearty. Because Llewyn Davis is a film by Joel and Ethan Coen, it would be fair to expect that in due time Llewyn will be hung. These are two filmmakers who’ve put wood chippers and air compressors to lethal use, for comedy and for dread. As my friend Mark said after he saw the movie: These two think the Book of Job is funny.
But the melancholy that suffuses this movie feels new. It isn’t merely in the traditional folk hymns, which T-Bone Burnett has produced and arranged. It’s also in the smoky, foggy, blueish palette of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography and the brothers’ own restraint. For now, they’ve tabled the pleasure taken in bringing hell to earth. When we meet Llewyn, played by Oscar Isaac, the worst has already happened: His musical partner, Mike Timlin, has thrown himself from a bridge. Now he’s a solo act at an existential crossroads. Is he too pure for the coming folk explosion? Should he just rejoin the navy? Narratively, the film is simply a series of deftly tailored episodes about what he’s going to do with himself.
Llewyn is another of the Coens’ luckless protagonists, another Wile E. Coyote constantly beset by falling anvils. It’s not just that his partner has killed himself. His mistress, a singer named Jean (Carey Mulligan), tells him she’s pregnant. He’s broke and homeless. And yet Llewyn differs from the Coens’ previous Jobs. God isn’t punishing him. Llewyn is hurting himself. The sources of his woe are snobbery and narcissism. Nothing is good enough for him. He can’t connect to anyone. He’d rather be a vagabond with principles than a man with a day job and a bed. He’s a lousy boyfriend, brother, son, and friend. Exasperated harangues are all he brings out of women. His older sister (Jeanine Serralles) and the wife of a friend (Robin Bartlett) hit the roof.
At one point, Llewyn is invited to provide supporting vocals and guitar in a recording session with Jean’s squeaky-clean boyfriend and folkmate, Jim (Justin Timberlake). It’s for a space-exploration ditty called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” which they rehearse with a third fellow, Al Cody (Adam Driver). Llewyn tries out some of the lyrics and harmonies and has to ask more or less who wrote this crap. Jim volunteers himself, with Timberlake at his most hilarious virginal pitch. The minute we see these three bang out the song — Driver doing the baritone interjections (“uh-oh,” “outer [pause] space”) — we know it’ll be a novelty hit. The first time I saw the film, the theater erupted in applause when the song ended. Llewyn, of course, just wants the paycheck and briskly signs away his royalty rights but not his soul.
The Coens included “Please Mr. Kennedy” because it’s catchy and clever and fun. But they also include it as an affront to Llewyn’s sense of authenticity. He seems to want to suffer — not for his art but because of it. The brothers manage to capture the squareness of the early 1960s and the earnestness of the folk scene. “Cool” as it would come to be known was still being invented. A glimpse of it arrives in the form of Garrett Hedlund, who, still channeling On the Road, plays a dude chain-smoking behind the wheel of the car that takes Llewyn and a rambling, obese bluesman (John Goodman) from New York to Chicago for a gig. Some of the humor is cartoonish. Llewyn spends part of the movie chasing a cat that has escaped from his friends’ home. But whenever it appears as if the film will luxuriate in moronics, the mood grays just enough. That runaway cat, for instance, becomes the closest connection he makes.
Llewyn is such a source of insult to so many people that you can’t imagine he was once socially productive. How could he have maintained a relationship with any woman, let alone a fling with Jean? The answers are less in the writing and more in Isaac’s presence. The film is a work of deceptive refrigeration. The character lacks the same sentiment and warmth as the men who created him. It’s Isaac who takes some of the chill off. He doesn’t cheat in playing Llewyn’s selfishness and abrasiveness. But the actor has a charisma that keeps him likable without pleading to be liked.
Isaac is a character actor who’s been smartly deployed in a dozen other movies — he was Mulligan’s ex-con baby daddy in Drive; the deviant orderly in Sucker Punch; and a Russian-born seducer in the underrated W.E. Madonna directed W.E., and she picked up on a strain of sexy showman in Isaac and let him run with it. Here, he comes off like a full-blown movie star, with a personality that functions almost independently of the mild contraption the Coens have built around him.
For one thing, the actor sings Llewyn’s songs himself, so the sadness you hear in his voice is immediate. For another, Isaac makes a shrewd creative decision: He’s not playing most of the scenes in the emotional present. He’s physically there, but appears to be trying to leave. When Llewyn’s partner dies, he loses his other half. That’s where Isaac appears to be, dwelling quietly on the loss, bristling whenever anyone suggests he find another partner, turning indignant when someone tries to finish an old Timlin-Davis tune. Only in song is Llewyn in the wounds of the here and now.
The movie offers a punch line about the kind of folky superstardom Llewyn is missing out on. But it isn’t quite a satire. Nor is it entirely a road comedy. Its peculiarities amount to a plaintive hypothetical drama about what it might mean for Joel to exist without Ethan or the other way around. We never meet Mike Timlin but get the sense he was indispensable to Llewyn’s sense of balance. That’s the source of the melancholy. Without Timlin, Llewyn is unmoored, a man with no answers, blowing in the wind.
Philomena contains a mystery that’s solved in the first 40 minutes. What brings it to conclusion is not worth ruining. But the solution opens the film into something that will surprise even people familiar with the story of Philomena Lee.
Lee was a retired Irish nurse living in England, who as a young woman had her son taken from her by nuns who deemed her unfit for motherhood because she wasn’t married. The boy was adopted by American parents. She spent 50 years with a broken heart and a nagging curiosity about what had happened to him. To the reluctant rescue came the journalist Martin Sixsmith, freshly sacked from a job as a political adviser. He had plans to write a book about Russia, but agreed to help Lee find her answers.
The film, directed by Stephen Frears, begins as an odd-couple movie. Judi Dench plays Lee as a devout woman who’s charming and easily charmed — by the idea of Big Momma’s House, by the complimentary omelette that comes with her hotel stay, and by the Mexican giant who cooked it. Steve Coogan makes Sixsmith a snob, an atheist, and a prig. He finds all that charm exasperating. But he becomes a committed sleuth, both because he has a newspaper editor breathing down his neck and because, as he and Philomena make their way to the United States, he finds compelling her need to know if this long-lost son has ever thought of her or of Ireland.
Coogan wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope. It’s smart and unsweetened. What interests them is not what happened to Lee’s son, but why it happened and why the nuns, decades later, wouldn’t help her find him. Eventually, you realize there’s a cover-up afoot that for years has depended on Philomena taking no for an answer. “No” simply makes Martin hungrier for a yes.
Fondness and familiarity gradually shrink the chasms separating Martin’s temperament and class standing from Philomena’s. Frears does nothing flashy or gratuitous. He can ply a film with theater (Dangerous Liaisons), noir (The Grifters), and tight, tony TV-movie-ness (The Queen). But he’s also good at natural staging. He often keeps Dench and Coogan in the same shot so you can see them reacting to each other. The sight of her nattering on about a romance novel as he barely disguises his disdain is very funny. Frears knows where all the human moments are.
It also doesn’t hurt that he has Dench to direct. She’s the least vain actress in the movies, possibly ever. Here her hair is done as a kind of perm. The creases and wrinkles around her mouth suggest decades of contortion in worriment. She lacks actorly vanity. She serves only the needs of the scene, even in juicy, over-the-top garbage like Notes on a Scandal. As Philomena, Dench has a climactic confrontation toward the end that’s remarkable for how even she remains throughout. Her voice remains steady with hurt, but not animated with the fury you’d get in a different film. This kind of rational acting might not be for everybody. We’ve been conditioned to expect fireworks during a showdown. Dench goes a different direction. She defuses, which makes her restraint all the more devastating.
Right now, Alexander Payne is offering a droll observation of vanishing industrial and agrarian life in Nebraska. But if you crave a version that is ludicrously overwrought, there is Out of the Furnace, a movie that wants desperately to justify its violence with solemnified images of dead and dying steel plants in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Braddock is about nine miles from downtown Pittsburgh and is meant to represent national decline. Scott Cooper directed the film and wrote it with Brad Ingelsby, and he loads the story of two brothers and their respective dire straits with big ideas. But the film’s twin riffs on the stagnation of white masculinity and moribund American industry desperately require unpacking and ignition.
Instead, they’re used to give sociological ballast to a movie that just wants its physical assaults, bare-knuckle boxing matches, and stoic revenge to look handsome. The brothers are Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck). Russell toils in a steel mill. Rodney keeps disappearing from Braddock to fight in Iraq. A lifetime in the mill is killing their father. The Great Recession appears to be killing everyone else. Back for good from the war, Rodney starts to box for a fixer (Willem Dafoe), then for a vision of druggy backwoods psychosis named Harlan (Woody Harrelson).
There is nothing immediately objectionable about this premise. But Cooper begins flashing images of Barack Obama’s nomination and election. He offers the embarrassing juxtaposition of Rodney’s bloodied face with the image of dead deer. He either quotes from or directly echoes other movies — The Deer Hunter, Heat. What is he trying to get at? Where is he trying to go? A side plot has Russell emerging from prison to find that his ex — who works with children and is played by Zoe Saldana — has moved on to another man, a police officer played by Forest Whitaker. This is a movie that might have been a great drama at four hours with a more ambitious script and a director with a vision or something to say. Whitaker’s so good in his couple of otherwise implausible scenes that you start to feel the film has been boiled down from a longer epic.
But would two more hours really have made a difference? You never believe that Cooper knows what the gorgeous shots of puffing smokestacks and empty mills mean, other than to signify blue-collar grit. You never believe he went beyond asking men like Bale, Affleck, and Harrelson, who acquit themselves ferociously, to represent male totems and movie clichés. (Cooper’s previous movie was the unpersuasive country-music slog Crazy Heart.) Worst of all is the disposable casting of Sam Shepard as a fading symbol of American movie masculinity. (He plays the Baze boys’ uncle.) At this point, simply having him grace your grim adolescent fantasy doesn’t confer authenticity or good taste. It implies that you saw him lazing about underused in someone else’s movie — The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Brothers, Safe House, Mud — and had to have him manning yours up, too.
Out of the Furnace joins Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly, which also had a small part for Shepard, and Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines as another youngish director’s attempt to do something substantial with violence and style. (The crime thrillers of James Gray have come thrillingly close.) These vacuous, grim, sometimes grisly movies want to speak to the troubles and fears of our times. But to even have a chance at achieving that, a director ought to care about life as it’s lived outside the movies he’s seen.