Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Category: 2013 films

Philomena (dir. Stephen Frears, 2013)

The ninth “deliberation” in Søren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love (1847) is called “The Work of Love in Remembering One Dead.” Though it has been accused of suggesting that loving the dead is preferable to loving the living, Kierkegaard’s argument is actually far different. As he sees it, one of the pitfalls of human relationships is that, even when they flourish, there is a quid pro quo involved. It is not so, however, when one loves the dead, for to love the dead is precisely to love one who can give nothing in return. Hence, for Kierkegaard, the practice of loving the dead is a kind of “training” for loving the living. It teaches one to seek love even when it is not (palpably) returned, to allow oneself to be oriented by love even in the face of grim reality. In this way, the loving one comes to reflect the love of God.

Stephen Frears’ Philomena might be seen as a meditation on Kierkegaard’s insight. Inspired by a true story — albeit with a few key deviations — it tells of Philomena Lee (Judi Dench, in a poignantly understated performance), an Irish woman who longs to be reunited with the son she gave up for adoption almost fifty years before. But there are significant obstacles. Philomena’s son was conceived out of wedlock, and, as punishment, she was sent to work at Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Ireland. In turn, the abbey’s nuns legally assumed control over her affairs, including her baby. So, when they approved the child’s adoption by an American family, Philomena was not only powerless to prevent it but even excluded from any knowledge of his whereabouts. It was, in any legal or political sense, as if she had never known him.

And yet, one of the presuppositions of Philomena is that love cannot be reduced to the juridical or to the political. Love has the unique quality of being limitless, uncorrupted by worldly realities or the ravages of time. Hence, when journalist Martin Sixsmith (a mordantly amusing Steven Coogan) agrees to help Philomena find her son, she jumps at the opportunity. Philomena and Sixsmith are the proverbial odd couple, and Frears mines their relationship for both humor and perspective. Philomena (despite everything) is a devout Catholic, while Sixsmith is an atheist, who cannot reconcile faith in God with the atrocities of the news cycle. Ultimately, the validity of their respective worldviews is tried in the extreme. Following a number of leads, they learn that Philomena’s son, after a successful career, died of AIDS and requested to be buried in Ireland — indeed, at the very abbey in which he was born. Sixsmith is livid. The nuns had told Philomena that they knew nothing of her son’s fate. Thus the pair travel back to Roscrea, where a climactic confrontation takes place.

Indeed, it is here that the film’s theme crystallizes. Frears depicts two opposed institutions — that of a church seeking to protect its interests and of a press hostile to everything but a marketable story. Philomena refuses to join either side. She is angry with the sisters of Sean Ross Abbey, even as she wants nothing to do with Sixsmith’s cynicism. To be a Christian, she understands, is about love. And it is the love that she has for her son — a love that is its own gift, for it asks nothing of the other — that now teaches her to forgive.

As is well-known, many have objected to this denouement, noting its historical inaccuracies and (potentially) anti-Catholic undertones. Granted, the portrayal of one Sr. Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford) is, in effect, pabulum, pandering to the crudest stereotypes of Catholic nuns. And yet, Philomena does not dwell on this point. As the film comes to a close, Philomena visits the grave of her son. A chastened Sixsmith joins her there, and he presents her with a small figure of the Most Sacred Hart of Jesus. The aging woman places it on her son’s gravestone — a symbol of the love in which she shares and still finds hope.

Her (dir. Spike Jonze, 2013)

I’ve heard people refer to Her as “the movie about the guy who falls in love with his computer,” but that’s not quite right. In truth, it’s a film about human relationships or, better yet, about human nature itself. An analog might be found in Wim Wenders’ 1987 masterpiece, Der Himmel über Berlin (retitled Wings of Desire for anglophone audiences). Ostensibly about two angels, who observe the lives of ordinary people in postwar Berlin, it is really about the ups and downs (but especially the ups!) of being human. The angels are not so much protagonists as vehicles for Wenders’ poetic exploration of delights both mundane (a warm cup of coffee) and transcendent (falling in love). But therein also lies a difference between the two films. For Her principally concerns what happens when relationships go wrong — something, it suggests, that is as natural to our species as anything else.

Set in 2025 in Los Angeles, Her is very much an urban film. After all, that is where people are in the modern world — in cities, generally detached from nature and from each other, moving hither and thither according to the rhythms of business. In such an environment, computers are essential, helping with daily tasks and/or providing entertainment. So, when his marriage dissolves, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), decides to purchase a brand-new operating system, which is outfitted with artificial intelligence. It is meant to assist him like any other OS but with a crucial difference: it adapts and evolves in accordance with real-world experience. In other words, it is programed to develop along with its buyer. In his loneliness, Theo opts for a “female” OS named Samantha (Scarlett Johansson, whose rich voice is put to full effect here), and before long a relationship begins. She serves as the companion he desperately needs — using a mic and an earpiece, they are able to be in constant communication — while he serves as a medium into a world she is eager to learn about.  They suit one another, and they are happy. But can it last?

Admirably (if somewhat tediously), Jonze tries to think this question through, both from the human and (to whatever degree it is possible) from the electronic side. Samantha realizes that she is unable to fulfill Theo’s sexual desires, and so — in a bizarre yet clever scene — she arranges for a “surrogate” to supplement her inadequacies. On the other hand, the benefits of disembodiment are lost neither on Theo nor on Samantha. Whereas Theo’s intelligence and lifespan are finite, Samantha’s are not. She reads entire books in a matter of seconds and is able to carry on multiple relationships at once. Ultimately, then, it is simply not possible for Theo to satisfy her. A mere mortal, with a host of flaws and insecurities, he can’t measure up to the intellectual prowess of the latest OSes.

Indeed, for Jonze, it is hard being human. We desire love above all else, but love — even when proffered digitally — is bound to let us down. Or maybe not. As Her comes to close, Theo seems to have a greater sense of who he is and what he needs, and he reaches out to a friend who has been similarly hurt. Here, perhaps, is the seed of a genuine human relationship, wherein human fragility is not conquered but embraced. It is a hint, however faint, at the paradox of the Christian message: one cannot truly begin to live until one has learned to die.

August: Osage County (dir. John Wells, 2013)

August: Osage County will, at the very least, make you appreciate your own mother. Based on Tracy Letts’ play of the same name, the story centers on Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), the matriarch of an Oklahoma family on the brink of disintegration. The trouble, it turns out, has been brewing for years. As Letts tells it (he’s credited as screenwriter as well), suffering has been imposed on the Westons in almost Sophoclean fashion. Vi and her husband, Bev (Sam Shepard), grew up poor and hard on the rural plains. And though they managed to overcome their meager origins — Bev, in particular, has become a noted poet and homme de lettres — the past (to paraphrase Faulkner) is not even the past. Bev is as married to the bottle as he is to his books, and Vi is addicted to a cocktail of prescription narcotics, ostensibly to help her cope with oral cancer but, in truth, because she simply prefers to be high. So, when Bev goes missing, there is a genuine sense of foreboding, and the extended family descends on the Weston homestead. It is an irascible if colorful lot, headed by Barbara (Julia Roberts), the eldest daughter who appears destined to repeat the sins of her mother. That mayhem ensues is hardly unexpected.

In a sense, then, there is nothing all that surprising about August: Osage County. Still, the acting and writing are so good that it’s not hard to keep watching. What’s interesting, in particular, is how the movie can’t make up its mind on the problem of redemption, on the possibility of extracting good from the Westons’ dysfunction. Shall the parents’ sins be visited upon the children (Ezekiel 18:19-20)? For much of the film, the answer to this question would seem to be a resounding “yes.” Every character — from Bev to Barbara’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin) — bears some stain from the family’s history. This point is brought to a head in the film’s best moment, a family dinner that resembles a scene from Talladega Nights (yesthat Talladega Nights), even as it underscores Vi’s malignant asperity and its ability to squash any attempt to attain family harmony. That this scene involves a prayer is not insignificant. Vi is happy to tolerate “grace” before meals, so long as one doesn’t really expect grace to arrive. Hers, indeed, is a grace-less worldview: human beings always get what they deserve, and what they deserve is pain.

And yet, as the film ends, a punch is pulled. Sure, Vi meets a fittingly tragic end, but Barbara is given a glimpse of hope — a subtle but significant departure from the stage version, which, in turn, has invited a degree of controversy. Might the children escape their parents’ sins after all? That Letts and director John Wells allude to this question — and, with it, the question of redemption that has animated humanity’s religious sensibility for millennia — demonstrates its ongoing importance. To borrow from Barbara’s last scene, the warmth of the sunshine and the freedom of the open road always seem to beckon from beyond life’s otherwise oppressive disappointments.

12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen, 2013)

There is a scene, late in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which makes the horror of slavery painfully manifest: Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) — once a free man but now a slave in the employ of Louisiana plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) — is forced to lash his fellow slave and friend, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). It is the sort of scene that garners a film an Oscar, gathering all of the atrocities of the slave trade into a single, unforgettable moment. With each crack of the whip, the human beings involved are reduced to something less than human, and so, like Schindler’s List before it, 12 Years a Slave becomes something more than a “movie.” It is a witness to human tragedy.

With that said, the quieter moments of 12 Years a Slave merit equal consideration. Indeed, for the most part, McQueen is content to observe what, for lack of a better word, might be called the “paradoxes” of the slave trade. For example, in one early scene, a slave named Clemens Ray (Chris Chalk) runs like a child into the arms of his master, petrified that he will be sent to another (presumably more cruel) owner. Or there is the moment in the shop of the (paradoxically named) slave dealer, Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), when a bewildered Northrup plays his fiddle as a family of slaves is divided among different “customers.” Nevertheless, from a theological point of view, there is no more paradoxical figure than William Prince Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, excellent as usual) — a Baptist preacher and farmer, who purchased Northrup in 1841. A pious man, Ford holds worship services for his slaves, treats them well, and is not above taking their advice on how to run his plantation. As Northrup himself once wrote of Ford: “In my opinion, there never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford.” But Ford is a slaveowner, one whose piety has merged with the habits and mores of a corrupt institution. He wants to do the right thing but, crucially, lacks a vantage point from which to discern right and wrong. To quote Northrup once more: “The influences and associations that had always surrounded [Ford], blinded him to the inherent wrong at the bottom of the system of Slavery.”

Northrup’s insight here points to one of the more subtle lessons of 12 Years a Slave. People tend to approach moral questions in binary terms, but the truth is devastatingly more complex than that. Ford may very well have been a “good” man — as his ancestors have recently protested — but his notion of “good” was significantly indebted to a nefarious culture. Moreover, this is a problem that threatens all of our moral reasoning. What looks to be right and normal today may not be viewed that way in subsequent times; in fact, it may just be the projection of a culture that has been warped by envy or greed. Doubtless, that is just another reason why, for St. Paul, one’s salvation is never a matter of course, but must be worked out “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).

The Wolf of Wall Street (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2013)

Though never one to shy away from Dionysian excess, Martin Scorsese’s films have often carried moralistic undertones. For example, in Taxi Driver (1976), it is disgust at human degradation that drives Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) to rampage against society. Likewise, Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) is not the God-man of orthodox Christianity but, rather, “the saint of blasphemy” — a human, all too human, enemy of religious and political corruption. One would expect, then, that Scorsese’s latest picture, The Wolf of Wall Street, would bear a similar critique. But that is not the case. The film’s ethical message seems to be that there is none.

Of course, it should be pointed out that this is not Scorsese’s story but, rather, that of Jordan Belfort — a New York stockbroker, who founded the brokerage firm, Stratton Oakmont, in the early 1990s. Through grit, wit, and a vertiginous drug regimen (cocaine to get up, Quaaludes to come down), Belfort turned Stratton Oakmont into the largest off-exchange firm in the country. And yet, in 1998, he was indicted for fraud and money laundering, eventually landing himself in federal prison for swindling roughly 200 million dollars from investors. Here would seem to be the moral edge to the tale, but, for the most part, Scorsese is disinterested in Belfort’s downfall. After all, why pay attention to such a downer (no pun intended) when Belfort’s heyday was so much fun? So, instead, The Wolf of Wall Street features countless scenes of decadence, from in-flight orgies to midget tossing to (above all) drug abuse, including a morbidly comic overdose on Methaqualone. As played by Leonardo DiCaprio — in a strikingly uninhibited performance — Belfort is a man who simply no longer gives a damn about anything but money. As he commands his investment team, “I want you to deal with your problems…by becoming rich!”

This sort of Weltanschauung makes for easy critique, particularly from a Christian point of view. But Scorsese knows that, and he doesn’t care. Here we get an idealized picture of Nietzsche’s will to power, which, if one is being is honest, is as attractive as it is offensive. Thus The Wolf of Wall Street seems to end with the questions: if you could live like this, would you want to? if you could buy whatever you wanted, what would stop you? Such questions cast an indirect light on the possibility of a moral order. Yet, for Scorsese, whether or not one sees anything is entirely up to the viewer.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (dir. Francis Lawrence, 2013)

In my review of The Hunger Games — the predecessor of Catching Fire and the first of four films based on Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of novels — I mentioned my surprise at the film’s dense cultural and religious significance. It’s rare that a movie marketed at such a wide audience evokes themes found in thinkers such as Dostoevsky and Girard, not to mention the Bible. Unfortunately, however, Catching Fire does not build on this foundation and begins to resemble a typical, if well-made, Hollywood blockbuster.

The movie picks up in media res. After surviving the Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) return to their home district, where life under the ruthless President Snow (a pitch-perfect Donald Sutherland) remains nasty, brutish, and short. But change is on the horizon. The bond between Katniss and Peeta — which, in effect, halted the Games and so undermined Snow’s means of pacifying his populace — has given the citizens of Panem hope for a society based on love, rather than on fear. Protests break out, and Snow realizes that Peeta and, above all, Katniss have become symbols, signifying the possibility of a world beyond the present one. Thus they must be eliminated. Snow reasons that the best way to achieve this end is to call another Hunger Games, this time pitting past winners against one another. Under such circumstances, Katniss will either kill or be killed or, preferably, kill and be killed. In turn, her image will be altered from that of self-sacrificing lover to that of self-preserving murderer.

To this point, Catching Fire juxtaposes a deep skepticism regarding the Civitas Terrena with a palpable, albeit inchoate longing for the Civitas Dei. And yet, once the Games resume, the film quickly becomes formulaic. Not only are many of the same personalities and scenarios reprised, but a new theme emerges, namely, that of Katniss as a leader of a military rebellion against Snow’s regime. Whereas the first film positions love itself — peaceable, patient, and disinterested in all but the good of the other — as the answer to winner-take-all politics, the second one can’t resist the pull of an ostensibly more practical solution. Violence must be met with violence.

In the end, then, Catching Fire comes to bear a notable resemblance Star Wars: its religious motifs are put in service to a far less interesting war-cum-political story. (Remember just how bad it got in the Star Wars prequels, with all of the talk about “alliances,” “the senate,” and the “Galactic Republic”?) One might well conclude, à la St. Paul, that the New Testament’s emphasis on self-emptying love is just too foolish in the eyes of the world (1 Cor. 1:18). One might also wonder if, sadly, the joke is on us.

Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne, 2013)

Alexander Payne’s latest film, Nebraska, has been called a number of things — a chronicle of economic depression in rural America; a satire of Midwestern values; an ode to the stark beauty of the Great Plains; and, perhaps above all, an ideal vehicle for veteran actor, Bruce Dern. In a sense, Nebraska is each of these things. And yet, more than anything else, it is a film about compassion.

To have “compassion” is, quite literally, to “suffer with” (com-passio) with another. Thus we say that the compassionate person does not merely feel bad for one who is suffering but actually works to assuage one’s pain. It is a stance of solidarity or, better yet, the ultimate act of togetherness. After all, it is one thing to stand with a person when things are going well, but quite another when they are not.

The compassion at the heart of Nebraska involves two main characters — Woody Grant (Dern) and his son, David (Will Forte). The movie opens with Woody, disheveled and grim, hobbling along a highway in Billings, Montana. A policeman stops him, and we soon learn that Woody is trying to walk from Billings to Lincoln, Nebraska, a distance of nearly 850 miles. It is a fool’s task, but it turns out that Woody is something of a fool. A naive yet strong-willed septuagenerian, he believes that he has won a sweepstakes prize from a Lincoln-based marketing agency. He wants to claim his million-dollar award, but no one will take him. His wife, Kate (a hilarious, foul-mouthed June Squibb), thinks he belongs in a nursing home, and his oldest son, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), is too busy trying to become “the Tom Brokaw of Billings.” That leaves his youngest son, David, who agrees to drive him, figuring, at the very least, it will get him out of Billings for a few days. And so they head east, across the Plains, which Payne’s black-and-white lens imbues with a sense of washed-out melancholy.

It is at this point that the film’s central motif emerges. As Woody continues to prove troublesome (drinking too much, wandering off, losing his teeth), David is forced to try to understand him better. Why has he so often resorted to alcohol abuse? Why is he so sullen and taciturn? And, above all, why is he so adamant that he has won one million dollars? Through a series of events, most of which center on a pitstop in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska, these questions are not so much solved as contemplated. David comes to see the world through Woody’s eyes, and he realizes that his father’s personality is an outgrowth of much pain and tragedy — a point that sheds light on the old man’s quixotic quest. For Woody wants to leave behind something for his family, something they (and he) will be proud of. Thus David must finish this journey with Woody, no matter how arduous or fruitless. That, indeed, is what it means to be compassionate.

Such a conclusion might suggest that David is a kind of Christ-figure, but that is not how Forte plays him. Rather, he exudes the humble, often unsure demeanor of a disciple — that is to say, of one who knows what is good and true, but also knows the struggles of adhering to it. This sort of attitude — meek yet resolute, empathic yet committed — may help illumine a recent comment by Pope Francis regarding the Church:

“We need to come out of ourselves and head for the periphery. We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a Church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a Church becomes like this, it grows sick. It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But if the Church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded Church that goes out onto the streets and a sick withdrawn Church, I would definitely choose the first one…”.

To see from the periphery, as he puts it, is to look outward, beyond one’s own interests. It is, in other words, to treat others with compassion, to meet them where they are, even if where they are is difficult or disappointing. According to the Pope, this sort of compassion is not a weak-kneed capitulation, but a means of redemption. Nebraska agrees.

All Is Lost (dir. J.C. Chandor, 2013)

Whether understood on a literal or an allegorical level, All Is Lost is a compelling film. Set in a lonely expanse of the Indian Ocean — “1700 nautical miles from the Sumatra Straits” — it stars Robert Redford as an unnamed yachtsman, whose vessel has been compromised in a freak accident. Concerned yet resolute, “Our Man” (so dubbed by the credits) initially seeks to repair his boat, but a series of storms renders it unsalvageable. He is then forced to retreat to a life raft, where he can do little but wait for a rescuer. Short on rations and vulnerable to the sea’s caprice, the sailor is not only in a struggle with time but also with his own insignificance opposite the forces of nature and of men.

Yet, director J.C. Chandor wants All Is Lost to go beyond a bare survival story. After all, unlike other animals, human beings confront their mortality reflexively. That is to say, the human being views his or her peril not as a mere member of the species but, rather, as an “I” or a “thou.” Thus an early voiceover — practically the film’s only words — discloses that the sailor has loved ones and is concerned about their well-being. Moreover, in his plight, he is painfully aware that his life has fallen short of what he and others have desired. He has “tried” (as he repeatedly stresses) to do the right thing, but his efforts have led to disappointment. “I’m sorry,” he concludes.

But what is it to be “sorry”? In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Søren Kierkegaard argues that to be sorry or to recognize one’s own guilt is a qualification of immanent religiousness. In other words, it is not a quality exclusive to Christianity but, rather, belongs to every human attempt to understand life in relation to an ultimate happiness. For, over against even the possibility of an ideal existence, human beings can see that it is not something they can achieve on their own. One can try to be a perfect father or scholar or athlete — to use mundane examples that Kierkegaard, admittedly, would not prefer — but will realize soon enough that such attempts are futile. Here an abyss opens up. Human beings cannot be what they want to be. And, Kierkegaard adds, any earnest confrontation with this fact will result in sorrow, not just in a general sense, but in a personal one. Against the backdrop of our finitude, brought into sharp relief by the encroaching specter of death, we become sorry for our failures, for all that we wanted to do but didn’t.

Of course, Redford’s character is not philosophizing in this way, but his statement of apology doesn’t seem like an accident either. It is an appropriate reaction to the myriad of weaknesses that constitute human existence. Moreover, it opens up new possibilities for the film’s ending. Without giving it away, I’ll just say that another dimension of Kierkegaard’s analysis of the religious life emerges, wherein the deepening of, or the descent into, immanent religiousness makes the individual receptive to salvation — indeed, a salvation from beyond the person’s own capability. One might call it a salvation from above.

Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen, 2013)

One of the more important insights of the Christian spiritual tradition — echoed from Gregory of Nyssa to Thomas Merton — is that life is not so much about accumulating as letting go, not so much a matter of working to acquire as learning to give away. It is, to be sure, a time-honored piece of wisdom, yet one that has little truck with contemporary society. After all, we live in a time where “growth” and “progress” are the watchwords of human enterprise, whether in business, politics, or even religion. If you’re not growing, if you’re not adding, if you’re not better today than yesterday (understood in a variety of terms, from money to prestige), then you’re doing something wrong.

Woody Allen’s latest film, Blue Jasmine, takes aim at this notion. It stars Cate Blanchett as Jeanette (“Jasmine”) Francis — a former Manhattan socialite who lost everything when her husband, Hal (Alec Baldwin), was arrested and convicted for fraudulent business practices. Panicky, overmedicated, and showing signs of psychosis, Jasmine relocates to San Francisco, where her sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), lives. Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealed that their relationship has never been particularly harmonious: the sylphlike Jasmine, who, it is remarked, has the “good genes,” condescends to the more homely Ginger, who cannot extricate herself from working-class trappings. Even after Jasmine’s downfall, an imbalance remains. Jasmine disdains Ginger’s mechanic boyfriend, Chili (Bobby Cannavale), and she laments having to take shelter in Ginger’s overcrowded flat. What’s the point of living, she implies, if you simply accept mediocrity?

Nevertheless, Blanchett is able to transform Jasmine into a pitiable character: it’s not that she is a bad person but that she has failed to think through the purpose of life. Ginger’s problem, meanwhile, is that she cannot convince herself that Jasmine is wrong. Thus she suddenly finds Chili less than enticing, and, despite having everything that Jasmine doesn’t (a stable job, loving children, etc.), she cowers in her sister’s proverbial shadow. This, Allen suggests, is the real trouble with the “American Dream”: it keeps us from being content with what we do have; it sets up the terms of life in such a way that no one is ever actually happy.

In a sense, then, Jasmine is a victim. The question is: will Ginger, too, succumb to this counsel of despair? Will she come to save her life by learning to let it go? Allen only hints at the answer to the latter question. Indeed, given his “militant Freudian atheism,” it may be that he himself is unsure of the answer or of whether or not an answer even matters. Still, the triumph of Blue Jasmine is that it diagnoses the problem in pointed fashion, and, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, the secret of Christianity is to become sick with some purpose.

Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)

Why do human beings produce art? What is art for? To make others happy? To give expression to the artist’s interior life? To make money? These questions swirl about Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest feature from Joel and Ethan Coen. And while they are loath to give a determinate answer — typical for a Coen brothers’ film — they ultimately suggest that one ought not confuse art with the artist.

From the start, Inside Llewyn Davis makes clear that its protagonist is not a pleasant character. Acerbic and irresponsible at best, mean and purposeless at worst, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer, who bounces around New York City, playing gigs for change and mooching off of friends for food and shelter. It’s the early 1960s, just before Bob Dylan broke on the scene, and the folk-music community is as insular as it is thriving. Everybody knows everybody, and they all prize the same cozy aesthetic. As one person rhetorically asks, “Isn’t music a  joyful expression of the soul?”

It is just this perspective, however, that Llewyn can’t stand. He peers behind the three-part harmonies and knit Aran sweaters and finds the sadness in the folk tradition. “Hang me, oh hang me, and I’ll be dead and gone,” he sings as the film opens, “wouldn’t mind the hangin’, but the layin’ in the grave so long.” The audience weakly claps when he finishes, but that’s the least of Llewyn’s problems. Not only is he broke, but his best friend committed suicide, his father has dementia, he may be the father of two children (by two mothers)…and, oh, he lost his benefactors’ cat. As his former lover, Jean (Carey Mulligan), bluntly puts it, “Everything you touch turns to shit! You’re like King Midas’ idiot brother.”

Amid such pain, Llewyn soldiers on. Better to be an artist, he notes, than simply to “exist.” Desperate, he bums a ride to Chicago, hoping to impress a big-name record producer, Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). After a series of misadventures, he finally gets his chance. Grossman watches intently as Llewyn sings the traditional English ballad, “The Death of Queen Jane”:

The doctor was called for and set by her bedside

‘What aileth thee, my ladie, thine eyes seem so red?’

‘O doctor, O doctor, will ye do this for me,

To rip up my two sides and save my babie?’

It is a poignant, soulful performance, and Llewyn’s deep-seated sympathy for the material is not lost on Grossman. Still, as Grossman sees it, Llewyn’s talent is not suited for commercial success. The art that Llewyn creates is not the sort of thing that others would want to purchase. If anything, it speaks to themes that they’d probably prefer to forget, much like Llewyn himself has been forgotten.

Thus Llewyn is brought to a choice: either keep going or give up. And, in raising this problem, the Coens encourage us to consider the nature and purpose of art. Why should Llewyn, the artist, keep creating? It is a question at least as old as Plato, and one that has been treated in a variety of ways since the advent of Christianity. One thought, intimated by the film itself, is that art is simply an articulation of the artist’s psycho-spiritual state. This view has been popular since the Romantics and would seem to align with Llewyn’s rugged and uncompromising individualism. And yet, another thing that the film makes clear is that, despite his pain, Llewyn’s art is attractive. When he sings, something else, something not really intended, also shows up. This is beauty — the beauty of doing something well, of “repeating” the world in poetic form, of allowing the created thing to communicate its truth freely. On this understanding, as Rowan Williams has explained, art is a kind of self-dispossession, a holiness independent of the artist’s moral character.

Of course, whether or not the Coens have something like this in mind is hard to say. It is interesting, however, that Llewyn does not write his own material but, rather, serves as a conduit for old folk songs. In him and in his sorrow they speak again, thereby revealing a depth to reality that commercial interests and the vicissitudes of daily life would have us ignore.