Inside Llewyn Davis
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is the most satisfyingly diabolical cinematic structure that the Coens have ever contrived, and that's just one reason that I suspect it…
Absolute silence while the Warner logo, the name of the production company and the title of the movie are displayed on the screen. Suddenly, we see ourselves orbiting the Earth while a cacophony of radio and television transmissions confuses us by their sheer volume and sound pollution they cause. Then, slowly, we begin a journey throughout the universe that will last for the next few minutes, taking us far from our old and familiar planet while we experience a kind of time traveling as sounds of our atmosphere become older and older - until, eventually, we are involved by an oppressive silence and we realize that we traveled further than our oldest sound emission. And when we begin to realize the dimension of our surroundings - that goes much beyond our capacity for abstraction -, we are back to the starting point, returning to Earth through the portal represented by the blue and young eyes of Ellie Arroway, our leading character.
Lasting almost four minutes, this spectacular sequence works almost as a short-movie that resumes, within it, the essence of the film's narrative, which uses an remarkable journey through Science and Universe as a way to illustrate the internal, emotional and psychological trajectory of the complex lead character who combines, in her last name, the significant nouns "arrow" and "way".
Inspired by the superb book by the astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan (who, after dying during the shooting, ended up being intensively honored throughout the movie by the recurring appearance of the letter "C"), Contact is a science fiction that gives similar importance to both terms of the genre: if its fictional narrative is intriguing and well developed, its science never surrenders to the implausible, offering theoretical basis even to its most absurd suppositions and creations. Centered around the careful exploration of the ideas and consequences of its intriguing premise, it shows its courage by never running away from the discussions naturally inspired by its central themes, such as the contra-position/complementation of Science and Religion - and, thus, it presents with no cynicism or criticism the human tendency of, when confronting the unknown, seeking comfort in the supernatural: or does someone doubt that, as seen here, the confirmed contact with an alien species would really lead thousands of scared people to temples and churches all around the world? However, at the same time, the wonderful screenplay by James V. Hart and Michael Goldenberg balances these great discussions with others of a more intimate nature that flirt with philosophical and existentialistic questions that are common to all of us - among them, of course, death (by asking her father what's the reach of her radio, the little Ellie questions if the machine would be able to get to her mother, who's already dead, establishing the first piece of the thematic rhyme that will be completed when, at the end of her journey made possible by technology, the hero will be reunited with her dead father).
Using scientific concepts like "wormholes" and Einstein-Rosen bridges with the expected ease of characters who spent their lives in the middle of these complexes hypothetical formulations, Contact attracts the audience to its narrative not only because of its didacticism, but, mainly, by constructing a multifaceted and fascinating protagonist, establishing her main motivations through the most important relationship of her life: the one she kept with her father. Played calmly and sweetly by David Morse, Ted Arroway enbodies the condition of a widowed father with apparent tranquility, fulfilling with evident love the fundamental role of expanding the mind of his young daughter (Malone) by having conversations about their shared passion for astronomy. This mind expansion, by the way, is represented in an almost literal way by the map the girl uses to register the most distant places she has ever reached with her radio - an object that, a little later, provides a new and elegant rhyme with the map in which, already a grown up, she will keep the register of the points where (notice the contrast) she couldn't find any kind of intelligent life.
Without offering to his daughter artificial comforts about her mother's death ("Not even the biggest antenna would reach her" is his answer to the question previously mentioned), Ted appears as a rational man who sees the great questions of the universe in a reasonable and pragmatic way, arguing, for example, that the lack of intelligent life outside Earth would be an "awful waste of space" - and his objectivity obviously exerts great influence in the way Ellie, already grown up (and played by Jodie Foster), will face the obstacles ahead. Therefore, it is comprehensible that his early death creates a unavoidable emotional emptiness in his daughter, who isolates herself emotionally at the same time that she uses her father figure as a role model to her romantic adventures, which results in a clear internal conflict (her interest in Matthew McConaughey's character is awaken when he repeats, without knowing, a line originally said by Ted, but it is also his curiosity about Ellie's father that makes the girl step away).
Protecting herself by using a relentless rationality, Ellie is an astronomer unable to see any kind of romanticism in the stars she observes (Venus, the most seductive planet, is "full of poisonous gases") and, when a senator stupidly questions why the alien sign consists of prime numbers and not English words, she doesn't hesitate before answering with no diplomacy that "70% of the planet speaks other languages", adding, as a good scientist, that "mathematics is the only truly universal language". Moved by her naturally contesting spirit, she can barely repress her combative instincts: even after making an effort to use a beautiful dress to a party in which she will meet pastor Palmer Joss (McConaughey), she immediately begins to confront his ideas when she is finally in front of him - after all, he supports a belief system that she already discarded in her childhood (when a priest tries to comfort her after Ted's death, saying that it's hard to understand the "will of God", little Ellie surprises him with her mature and straightforward answer that ignores any metaphysical suggestion: "I should have kept his medicines downstairs").
An extremely talented actress who always brings a huge dramatic power to her characters, Jodie Foster demonstrates how well she knows Ellie Arroway not only in moments of emotional intensity (not many, since the character forces herself to keep control of her emotions), but specially by making subtle choices such as the nervous coughs when she has to testify before a committee that will decide who'll be the first "space traveler" or - even more symptomatic - the unrestrained laugh that reveals her enthusiasm for the project. Firm in her convictions that only the things based on Science (or, at least, on palpable evidences) must be considered, she doesn't hesitate in denying any belief in the Divine - and, even unwillingly, pastor Joss demonstrates his acceptance of his lover's rationality by giving her a necklace that has, instead of a crucifix, a symbol of her scientific temperament: a compass. This gift, by the way, proves the intelligence of the two screenwriters by working also as an important element that reveals the internal cohesion of the narrative: when it appears for the first time, still in the very beginning of the movie, the compass inspires a joke by Ellie, who says that Palmer has to keep it so the object "can save his life someday" - which ends up being confirmed as a prophecy two hours later, when she abandons her seat in the little ship in order to recover the compass that had flown away, thus avoiding being crushed against the wall when the seat gets loose.
Forming an interesting couple exactly because of the different ways they interpret Faith, Reason and the concept of God itself, Ellie and Palmer promote some of the most intriguing arguments of the movie - and once again the writers (and Sagan) deserve credits for introducing the characters' points of view with honesty, sensibility and without prejudices. Palmer, for instance, answers to Ellie's demands for proofs of God's existence by asking if Ellie can "prove" that she loved her father, in a logic that, even flawed (after all, God is, to him, a "being", while Ellie's love is a feeling), is effective enough to illustrate his understanding of faith. And even if his question to Ellie during her interview before the committee ("Do you believe in God?") is unfair, it's easy to understand why, to him, it's important that Earth's ambassador represents the belief that most of the population share reagarding a divine entity - which, of course, doesn't deal with next logical question regarding which "God" should be represented in the mission (once again the movie is right, since reverends, priests and similars have the professional habit of ignoring other religions).
Regarding the rest of the cast, director Robert Zemeckis pays a curious homage to another iconic science fiction classic by casting Tom Skerritt and John Hurt, who previously had shared the screen in Alien. Playing a minor role (but a very important one), Hurt is the billionaire S. R. Hadden, who, literally living in the sky (he stays in a plane all the time and, after that, in an orbital station), shows up almost every time Ellie is facing an apparently insurmountable obstacle - and, this way, his "home" becomes even more ironic when we realize that he is the purest incarnation of deus ex machina. Meanwhile, Skerritt has the opportunity of establishing the scientist David Drumlin as a complex individual: politically ambicious, he shows a natural arrogance by always treating Ellie as a subordinate even after she proves her value before powerful people from Washington (by acting this way, he puts himself above her, keeping his power and influence). He isn't ashamed of taking credits for her discoveries and initially he is introduced as the obvious antagonist - until, of course, his scientific mind takes control when he's faced by evidences presented by Ellie and begins to help her in many occasions, proving that his very sharp intelligence is diminished only by his political talent (when he realizes, for instance, that Ellie was publicly hurt by her atheism, he starts casually mentioning God in his interviews, showing an attitude as studied as his insistence on repeating the same joke to different reporters)
It's also important to notice that part of the richness of these character compositions is also due to Robert Zemeckis, who, though a notably technical director, always demonstrates inspiration when casting and is known for offering a huge creative liberty to his actors. Creating a fluid rhythm through the film, Zemeckis is responsible, along with editor Arthur Schmidt, for many transitions that not only are very economic, but also extremely elegant, like the one when, after focusing little Ellie saying that she will need a "bigger antenna", he makes a traveling to the left and, through a fusion, repeats the character's gesture of putting her hair behind her ear to illustrate time passing, closing the ellipse with the accomplishment of the goal established by the girl: a shot of a giant antenna. Likewise, the director emphasizes her obsession by constantly showing us the sky (always full of stars), escaping from this visual logic in two precise moments: by replacing the stars for a sad and cloudy sky seen through autumn trees (reflecting the sadness caused by Ted's death) and when showing Ellie seated by a canyon under a melancholic horizon, illustrating the fact that, unable to continue her researches, she sees herself once again frustratingly stuck on Earth.
However, it's clear that these more subtle moments also give place, here and there, to shots in which Zemeckis uses his technical inventiveness, beginning with two moments when the camera goes through the glass on Ellie's door in a continuous travelling and including, of course, the magnificent long shot that emphasizes the urgence of the first contact with the alien sign by following the hero from her car to the control center. But maybe the most spectacular example of the filmmaker's creativity is the one that shows the effort of little Ellie to save her father: desperate after finding him lying in the kitchen, she runs upstairs in a nightmarish slow motion shot that ends on the bathroom's cabinet - when we realize that everything we had seen so far was the reflection of the projected action on the mirror (which is naturally impossible, implying, of course, the use of an intelligent composite shot). However, the final coup is revealed when the mirror, in closing again, shows the picture of Ted and Ellie - a touching and emblematic image that becomes more important when we realize she kept that photo for all her life.
But Contact is not only a movie of ideas, acting and techniques: it is also a work that impeccably establishes the tone of its narrative. From the little humorous moments (what can we say about a character who, named Kent Clark, is blind but has an acute hearing?) to the suspenseful scenes, Zemeckis builds a constantly involving experience. Observe, for instance, the scene which brings Ellie during the moments that precede her journey: isolated in her tiny room in the boat that keeps shaking with the movement of the ocean, she's almost in a fetal position while the sound of rain is heard threatening on the background - something that immediately makes the audience anguished and apprehensive. Likewise, the director quickly introduces the religious fanatic lived by Jake Busey in two different moments, preparing us to his terrorist action by establishing him as a disquieting and aggressive person a lot before the attack itself takes place.
Which brings us to one of the best sequences of the movies and which deserves a careful analysis for illustrating the talent of its director in its careful construction: in the beginning, Zemeckis introduces the threat in a subtle and almost imperceptible way by focusing Ellie with her back turned to the security monitors - which reveal the terrorist for the first time (the filmmaker increases our chances of noticing his presence by placing him on the right - and strongest - side of the screen). Seconds later, the man appears again in one of the monitors, now with his face a lot more visible, but Ellie fails again in noticing him. The tension is momentarily interrupted by jokes made by the crew regarding Drumlin's narcissism and only then, by approaching the security center, Ellie sees the fanatic at the launching base. Scared, she gets in touch with Drumlin using the headphones, allowing Zemeckis to show the conversation through an interesting approach by using the monitors as an inventive alternative to the traditional two-shot strategy. After that, Drumlin turns around to look for the threat and Zemeckis, conceiving a shot that's almost a split screen, establish the geography of the scene by simulating a direct confront between Drumlin and the terrorist, who look like they're directly staring each other thanks to the monitor's position. The sequence gets to an end by bringing the point of view of David's uniform camera, which ends up registering his own death in a shocking way, and Zemeckis emphasizes its violence by cutting to a shot that reveals the explosion throughout many monitors until the camera finally goes to a long shot that shows the windows and the machine itself from a distance. It's a perfect dramatic moment built with precision and which easily figures easily among the best moments of the filmmaker's career.
But that sequence still pales before Contact's climax, which involves Ellie's awaited journey on board of the alien ship: using great visual effects not only to illustrate the trip throughout the universe, but also the fracture in space-time continuum experienced by our protagonist (notice how, in a certain moment, many different facial expressions seem to appear simultaneously on her face), this key sequence ends in a moment of breathtaking lyricism, culminating in the sublime moment when, flabbergasted by the beauty of what she sees and feeling unable to describe it, Ellie says the line that, to me, is the most beautiful line of the movie:
- They should've sent a poet.
Mature, challenging and intelligent, Contact becomes even better by not trying to offer the impossible: a detailed and artificial explanation of the nature of the aliens and of the universe itself. Although they're a lot more technologically advanced than us on Earth (and how couldn't they be?), they are equally ignorant regarding the great mysteries of life, not even knowing who was responsible for making their transport system that uses the Einstein-Rosen bridges. And it's here that Carl Sagan's philosophy becomes more important by establishing the thematic/ideological center of the movie: when facing the impossibility of solving these fundamental questions about our existence, the only thing left is to find support in each other. We are, after all, together in this journey initiated by and directed to the Unknown - and, therefore, it's tragic that we insist on mutual destruction, intolerance and prejudice while walking through this scary and lonely path.
Ellie's experience, by the way, takes on a deliberately religious nature in its essence: first of all, by taking Ellie's father form in order to make her more comfortable, the Alien gives the meeting an atmosphere of supernatural phenomenon, of an after-death experience - specially because it happens in a place clearly built based on the memories of little Ellie (observe how the "beach" where they talk looks like the drawing she made in the beginning of the movie). However, what is even more important than that is the fact that Ellie returns from her trip without any evidence to prove her experience, which puts her, as a scientist, in the ironic position of being obligated to ask her partners to believe in her word without being able to offer any empiric proof of what she's saying:
- I had an experience. I can't prove it. I can't even explain it. All I can tell you is that everything I know as a human being, everything I am, tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful. Something that changed me. A vision of the universe that made it overwhelmingly clear just how tiny and insignificant and at the same time how rare and precious we all are. A vision that tells us we belong to something greater than ourselves that we're not - that none of us is alone.
She could, of course, be talking about God.
The difference is that, as a scientist (but, mainly, as a rational being), Ellie understands that her individual experience proves absolutely nothing and - unlike religious people from around the world - she accepts, though saddened, that her personal truth shouldn't be adopted as a dogma or an undeniable fact by the rest of human kind. But it doesn't matter: her personal and internal journey is completed in that exact moment, since Palmer, understanding that Ellie experienced something that he, as man of faith, can understand, is finally able to establish a connection that she only had had with her father.
That way, Ellie finally encountered the possibility of accomplishing the "goal" presented by the aliens and was able to establish a meaningful bond with another human being.And regarding her "religious-scientific" experience, what's left is the chance of sharing with other "believers" what she's been through, which makes her - once again ironically - a kind of a prophet.
But a prophet who, unlike so many others that without any evidence or reason see themselves as the ones who should dictate the rules by which we all have should live, is perfectly capable of saying three words that will always put Science above any blind dogma:
"I don't know".
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