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…
This is the seventh and (for now) final video in "The Wes Anderson Collection," a series that accompanies my same-named book about the director's career. Although the video's narration diverges pretty drastically from the critical essay that opens the "Moonrise Kingdom" of the book, I've included the original text here for comparison's sake.
Among other things, you'll see that I chopped out some of the thematic and visual analysis (figuring that my editor Steven Santos could make most of those points with footage anyway). In its place I put in a lengthy quote from Anderson himself (read by me but printed onscreen), and a section delving into some of the movies that influenced the story and look of "Moonrise Kingdom." The latter is drawn from my conversation with Anderson about all the youthful romances that he watched while preparing to cowrite "Moonrise" with Roman Coppola.
The kids of "Moonrise Kingdom" – cowritten by Anderson and Roman Coppola -- are lumps of clay, inexpertly trying to mold themselves after years of being shaped by others. But grownups and their institutions are unfinished, too. "Moonrise"’s adults forget that fact until renegade 12-year olds—eerily intense Khaki Scout Sam Shukusky (Jared Gillman) and hot-tempered bookworm Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward)—remind them of it. Wes Anderson’s seventh film, a comic romance about troubled middle schoolers who flee adult authority, boasts the exuberant visuals, clever dialogue and surprising musical cues that we’ve grown to expect from the director, plus an unabashedly happy ending. But it would be a mistake to write off the movie as a simpleminded crowd pleaser.
Sam and Suzy are surrounded by individuals and organizations that care about them without truly hearing or seeing them. Then the kids act out in ways that demand their full attention, forcing them to abandon their self-infatuated melodramas and ossified routines and rules and think about other people, specifically young people, as people, rather than as responsibilities or problems. And what happens? Scandal. Crisis. Complete social breakdown. And ultimately, reconciliation and evolution.
The adults in charge of Sam and Suzy’s lives don’t see them as they ought to be seen: as idiosyncratic individuals with complex personalities, unique needs and ferociously intense desires, none of which are being honored by their guardians or their community. No wonder Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and the orphaned Sam’s various, state-approved parent-figures -- his foster father (Larry Pine), his de facto guardian, Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton), and the abstractly-named Social Services (Tilda Swinton) -- are dumfounded when they vanish. “I admit we knew we'd get in trouble,” Sam says. “That part's true. We knew people would be worried, and we still ran away anyway. But something also happened, which we didn't do on purpose. When we first met each other, something happened to us.”
What happened to them was a little miracle that most people are lucky to experience in a lifetime: a meeting of true minds that would not admit impediment. As is so often the case in Wes Anderson movies, the heroes are artists at heart. Their creativity is both fueled by, and fuels, their anger, which manifests itself as both destruction and creation. Suzy’s traits include klepto-bibliomania, storytelling and binocular voyeurism. “I like stories with magic powers in them,” she tells Sam. “Either in kingdoms on Earth or on foreign planets.” Sam is a painter – “mostly landscapes and a few nudes,” Laura summarizes – as well as an outdoorsman who has a sense of style as well as a grasp of detail. (“That was the best-pitched campsite I’ve ever seen,” Scoutmaster Ward admits after the couple is tracked and caught, sounding truly impressed.)
The kids’ epistolary courtship – laid out in the reading-of-the-letters sequence, one of Anderson’s most compact and propulsive bits of direction – makes their predicament clear. The images are hilarious and disturbing: Suzy has an altercation in a classroom and lays another girl out; Sam sleepwalks and sets fires. He’s an according-to-Hoyle orphan; Suzy feels like one, because her lawyer parents, Laura and Walt, are so wrapped up in their martial troubles (including Laura’s affair with Bruce Willis’ Captain Sharp, the “sad, dumb policeman”, a relationship that’s less cause than symptom) that they can’t see their kids as kids. Walt is a slump-shouldered shell of a man, while Laura is all fretful, furtive glances, punctuated by edicts shouted through a bullhorn. Their solution to their daughter’s at-risk behavior is to buy a book titled “Coping With the Very Troubled Child” and hide it on top of the refrigerator. Anxiety, fear and a creeping sense of personal failure afflict nearly every adult in "Moonrise." The kids have their whole lives ahead of them, but the grownups worry that their best years are behind them, and that they’re frittering away the present.
“I hope the roof flies off, and I get sucked up into space,” Walt tells Suzy, in a rare, frank bedtime conversation. “You'll be better off without me.”
Things only start to turn around after the adults bust up Sam and Suzy’s reverie. Captain Sharp, who will eventually become the true father figure Sam always needed, replies to his “something happened” speech with the film’s first piece of useful adult wisdom. “That's very eloquent,” he tells the boy. “I can't argue against anything you're saying. But then again, I don't have to, because you're twelve years old. Look, let's face it, you're probably a much more intelligent person than I am. In fact, I guarantee it. But even smart kids stick they're fingers in electrical sockets sometimes. It takes time to figure things out. It's been proven by history. All mankind makes mistakes. It's our job to try to protect you from making the dangerous ones, if we can.”
You get the sense that eventually, the adult world of New Penzance will step up, to the degree that it's able, and become better guardians for Sam and Suzy. But it takes a crisis to force the grownups' hands, and the wisdom of children to push them down the correct path. A storm is coming – not just the actual storm descending on the island, but a metaphorical storm of chaos and darkness, founded in the inattention and selfishness of adults. They perpetuate all their own values, even the bad ones, without thinking, at times without feeling.
The value of independent thought, a sadly too-rare quality, is a key sub-theme in "Moonrise," and it’s tied to the notion of adults serving as caretakers and examples for children. Adult authority sloughs off its fog of depression and distraction once Sam and Suzy run away, but replaces it mainly with panic and fury. At first the grownups see the problem only as a scandal, an embarrassing reminder that they aren’t really in charge of anything and were asleep at the switch when the escape occurred. And during the film’s first half, the next generation of New Penzance residents – represented by the kids in Scoutmaster Ward’s Khaki Scout troop – let themselves be treated as bystanders, or worse, proxies for mindless adult authoritarianism. The Scouts even arm themselves with lethal instruments during the woodland search, as if the purpose were to destroy rather than merely find Sam and Suzy -- an unconscious wish on the part of the grownups that’s somehow seeped into the consciousness of the boys, with their paramilitary outfits and makeshift weapons.
But these same boys eventually realize their mistake and attempt to correct it by staging a kidnapping-as-liberation to reunite the lovers; their bold tactical improvisation takes them into the nondenominational tent of Cousin Ben, a self-styled chaplain who fuses Sam and Suzy in a wedding that’s more figurative than real. “I can't offer you a legally binding union,” he tells them. “It won't hold up in the state, the county, or frankly, any courtroom in the world, due to your age, lack of a license, and failure to get parental consent. But the ritual does carry a very important moral weight within yourselves.”
That phrase “moral weight” captures the unexpected resonance of "Moonrise." The movie carries itself as a knockabout comedy-romance, a mere diversion, but it lingers in the mind because its situations are about more than just what happens. The film subtly communicates that the right choice is one that’s based on empathy, attention and understanding, not mindless adherence to ritual or ostrich-like evasion of unpleasant truths. The relationship between tradition and innovation, the old guard and the new, can be likened to a negotiation, or better yet a dance -- like the courtship dance (figurative, and in once case literal) that Sam and Suzy undertake when they run away together.
The heart of the film is that burgeoning relationship. It’s funny because the kids aren’t fully grown yet – a fact that becomes clear when they try to kiss and feel each other up as teenagers would do – but it’s powerful because they’re doing just about everything else right. Each is headstrong but not averse to bending if it’ll make the other person happy and allow their little Eden to continue. It’s possible to love, listen and even indulge another person without accepting every thing they say and do without question or complaint – and as long as everyone involved agrees that traditions were made to be broken, no crisis is irresolvable.
“Sometimes I stick leaves on my hair,” says Sam, the benevolent mansplainer. “It helps cool your head down.” “Hmm, that's a good idea,” Suzy replies. “It might also help if you didn't wear a fur hat.” “I always wished I was an orphan,” Suzy tells him. “Most of my favorite characters are. I think your lives are more special.” ”I love you, but you don't know what you're talking about,” Sam says. “I love you too,” she replies.
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