It's not like I haven't got anyone to root for on Oscars night, someone off the superhighway of glitzy names and outside the dreary echo chamber of received critical wisdom. June Squibb, up for Best Supporting Actress for the wonderful Nebraska, is who I'll be cheering for, maybe fruitlessly, through the awards night fog of Merlot and snark, along with Bruce Dern and Alexander Payne.
But the real ghost at the feast is, for me, Inside Llewyn Davis, a beautifully written and directed story of a folk singer trying, not very successfully, to make it in early 1960s Greenwich Village. Its leading man Oscar Isaac and Ethan and Joel Coen, the film's directors, have been criminally overlooked for nominations for Best Film, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. If there was an Oscar for performances by felines, Inside Llewyn Davis should rightfully have claimed that too, with a purr. (It was nominated, deservedly so, for Best Sound Mixing and Best Cinematography.)
The problem with Inside Llewyn Davis is what makes it so brilliant: it is the anti-Oscar film with an unsympathetic hero, on a physical and emotional journey that only brings him lower, set against a washed-out, bleak New York, a historical time period with no flash or cash or swagger. The qualities that made it so memorable and affecting have counted against it; the films that are nominated reveal what Inside Llewyn Davis is not.
The Best Picture nominees, while wildly different in content and tone, share certain vital signs. 12 Years a Slave is a heroic tale of endurance and survival, with slavery and race as totem themes. The Wolf of Wall Street, bombastic as it is, has Leonardo DiCaprio, reveling in another recognizable and much-fetishised moment of American history, the greed waterfall of the 1990s. Even if it is an anti-morality tale, it tells a big story with swagger.
American Hustle, similarly, is set in the much-plundered era of the 1970s, and its sheer élan, plus Jennifer Lawrence's hair and Amy Adams's plunging dresses, ameliorate the puzzlement caused by its ranging plot. Captain Phillips is another tale of heroic endurance and survival, and similarly Gravity, both films anchored by the crucial big-stars-in-peril, Tom Hanks (no nomination) and Sandra Bullock.
Even the films a little off the mainstream hype-track have an upbeat bravura, or unexpected hero-on-a-journey. Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of a straight homophobe who becomes HIV-positive and starts buying experimental drugs for those with HIV and AIDS. Spike Jonze's Her may also come from the arthouse, but has a big-screen visual luxury and lushness and a star face in Joaquin Phoenix to give it Academy points. Nebraska, spare as it looks, follows Bruce Dern on a thornily redemptive road-trip; and Philomena—some of my cheers amid the Merlot will be reserved for Judi Dench and Steve Coogan—is the astonishing story, told with tangy directness, of a woman forced to give up her son by some ghastly Irish Catholic nuns who later tries to track him down.
But Inside Llewyn Davis is different to all of them, fatally for its Oscar chances, which only makes it even better in my eyes. It's about a loser who keeps losing. Davis's road-trip to Chicago, for a shot at fame, is a depressing bust, distinctive for his failure and for his jazz-man car-mate John Goodman's collapse in a diner toilet due to drugs.
Davis has no love life. He does not act honorably. He does not act dishonorably. He is merely acted upon, outfoxed by the world and fate. Yet you root for the wonderful Oscar Isaac in the title role. Davis begins the film, punched by an aggressor into the gutter and ends it the same way.
This is a film about loss and grief, and not making it—themes that without a looping back narrative of success and transcendence do not resound with Academy members. The most significant character next to Isaac's is off-screen, dead, a best friend who has taken his own life. Davis is not only rootless, he is lonely, without hope. Typically in films you root for the hero to overcome staggering odds, to pilot a plane to safety or endure cruelty on a horrific scale. During Inside Llewyn Davis you just wish Davis had a warm coat and that someone would answer when he rings on their doorbell.
"It's more interesting for me as an audience member to see a movie about a loser," Ethan Coen said in a recent interview. Joel Coen added, "We gave him a lot of crosses to bear." Ethan Coen said, "The movie is about how everything's hard for him. Why is it hard? Is it something in him? Yeah, partly, certainly. At least partly. Wholly? Partly? I dunno…We wanted a nice dick."
This isn't a film about conquering demons or surmounting impossible odds, it is a film about losing and the endurance of accumulated losses, the chipping away of character and of hope.
But the Academy doesn't like loser lead characters, unless they become winners. Or unless they are a big-name, which Isaac is not, and that may have counted against him. Not every Oscar winner is world-famous; Jean Dujardin who won for The Artist was not, but that film was a lovingly mounted celebration of Hollywood's silent era, perfect Academy bait for older voters, and also those keen to see a golden age of the industry lavishly celebrated.
Another problem with Inside Llewyn Davis may be the groundswell opinion that the film does not do justice to folk singer Dave Van Ronk whose memoir, The Mayor of McDougal Street, inspired the Coen brothers. His wife and manager from that time, Terri Thai, has written, though far from damningly, about what Inside Llewyn Davis gets wrong both about Van Ronk and the era. One of her most pointed criticisms is that people on the folk scene weren't as unfriendly as the film paints them.
Nothing edifies Davis in the film apart from his music, but even that is conveyed meekly. These aren't stomping tunes, but tender and mournful folk songs, a bespoke genre. When he isn't singing, he just looks terrified and lost. When he drinks he abuses the blameless around him, like the wife of a Columbia University professor who shows him kindness, and then—in an extremely uncomfortable scene—a female folk singer who he lobs a series of vicious insults at while she sings.
Davis also makes his friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) pregnant: she is both furious with him, but also empathizes with him. Mulligan's character is shacked up with Justin Timberlake, who—in the spirit of the film—delivers a subtly effective performance. Mulligan and Timberlake may be stars, but the Coens leave them admirably unbuffed.
Throughout, you feel the bone-chilling cold of the streets and Davis's loss. This isn't a film about conquering demons or surmounting impossible odds, it is a film about losing and losing more, the chipping away of character and of hope. It is about losing your dreams, not achieving them, life shrinking, hope diminishing, aspiration dissolving.
The most telling scenes are not when Davis is saying anything, or singing anything, but staring out of car windows, or at his fellow dented man on the subway. Inside Llewyn Davis is as spare as the inadequate clothes its lead character has to protect himself against the cold.
When are your eyes on stalks watching it? Not when two lead characters go at it in some nightclub toilets as in American Hustle, not when a slave owner prepares to lash an already brutalized servant as in 12 Years, not when an office erupts orgiastically amid dwarf throwing as in The Wolf of Wall Street, but instead every time its lead character almost loses sight or touch of a cat he must take charge of. Truly. And after that when, driving in the middle of the night and in a snowstorm, he swerves to avoid a sudden figure in the road. Inside Llewyn Davis a film of ghosts and disappointment; of a man not meeting the challenge of life.
The Coens are not Oscar-immune: they won four for No Country For Old Men in 2007, but that was set in an expansively shot American West, featured stars like Josh Brolin, Javier Bardem (remember, the helmet hair?), Tommy Lee Jones and Woody Harrelson. It was grand, loud, had delicious swagger, guns, sheriffs, goodies and baddies, and was adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel.
Yet even if the Academy found Inside Llewyn Davis too much of a downer, they have overlooked a performance of charismatic sincerity by Isaac. It is, like Dern's in Nebraska, of a vulnerable man at odds with the world. Dern has fame and the stature and rightful venerability of age on his side, Isaac does not. The Coens too have written and directed another magnificent screenplay, quite outside the Hollywood mainstream, the contrarian maestros of discomfort. Well, screw the Academy, guys. You, Emma Thompson, Lee Daniels, Oprah, Tom Hanks, Woody Allen (not nominated for Best Director or Best Film for Blue Jasmine—another gritted sigh) and Robert Redford are welcome at mine on March 2. Just bring Merlot.