Written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
It takes only a few minutes of Inside Llewyn Davis for its title character to comfortably enter the pantheon of iconic characters created by Joel and Ethan Coen. There’s no point, granted, in comparing him directly to Barton Fink or Marge Gunderson or Ulysses Everett McGill, but Davis is a person of great, maddening, recognizable complexities as much as any of those others. And though Llewyn is a consummate failure of a man, self-loathing enough that he can barely acknowledge his own faults, this new film from the Coen brothers is another high point in a filmography that is almost insultingly, consistently brilliant.
Llewyn, as played expertly by Oscar Isaac, performs folk music in Greenwich Village, circa 1961, but wants very badly to be an Important Musician, someone as big and influential a star at the time as Elvis Presley. Over the week that the film encompasses, Llewyn lives the life of a drifter, only a few steps away from being a homeless crank who rages at the world for refusing him that one chance to prove to everyone of his innate talents. He floats from bed to bed, staying one night at an academic’s apartment, the next with a married couple, Jim and Jean, (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) who are fellow folk performers, and so on. What weighs over him most of all, arguably, is the loss of his singing partner (the voice of Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, as heard in one of the many songs on the excellent soundtrack) for an indeterminate amount of time. From time to time, he’s confident of his prowess as a solo performer, but then, his record label’s owner, or the once-lovely and now-acidic Jean, or his more average-living sister, or a rival label’s head plant seeds of doubt in his mind.
That Inside Llewyn Davis is, in a fashion, without a plot is beside the point. To paraphrase the run-into-the-ground cliché, this film is about the journey, not the destination. (It’s no accident that, near the film’s close, Llewyn stops and stares at a poster for the Walt Disney drama The Incredible Journey, featuring two dogs and a cat.) The week we spend with Llewyn has a decidedly dreamlike structure and visual aesthetic; cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel—stepping in ably for the Coens’ regular director of photography, Roger Deakins—introduces a smoky, hazy quality to the setting, allowing Inside Llewyn Davis to emulate a slow-burn nightmare at times. When, for example, Llewyn is driving a car late at night on a drive from Chicago to New York, the tires rhythmically thumping with each slight bump in the pavement, snow flurries slapping against the windshield, the image is accompanied by an unerring instinct that something terrible is about to happen. Admittedly, the Coens’ entire run of films share a similar quality, but the brightness of the images here is unlike anything they’ve accomplished before. As we watch Llewyn trudge through the Chicago snow and ice, centered in the frame, for example, he resembles the figure in a particularly grim-looking snow globe.
It is both to the Coens’ and Isaac’s credit that Llewyn is given enough humanity despite being, frankly, an asshole. When, early in the film, Jean and Llewyn step into a nearby park for a conversation, specific to her being pregnant and the child possibly being his, not Jim’s, she berates him fiercely and incessantly. Though it may be in our nature to side with the protagonist, especially when a story is barely 20 minutes old, Llewyn soon acts selfishly enough that it’s clear Jean’s not wrong to repeatedly use the epithet. Llewyn’s struggle is relatable even in his darkest moments, partly because the Coens do not let him float by without being yanked back to Earth, whether it’s by a strange, suited figure beating him up in an alley, or by an equally baffling jazz musician (John Goodman, so menacing and delightful to see in another film by the Coens) whose drug-induced state isn’t enough to stop him from denigrating Llewyn and folk music. Llewyn is, perhaps, not as hapless a character as Larry Gopnik from A Serious Man; his legitimate skill and emotional heft as a folk musician is undeniable, even if it’s not quite stratospheric enough to make him a dyed-in-the-wool star. “What am I supposed to do, exist?” Llewyn asks bitterly to his sister at one point, after she suggests he go back to the military; the tragedy of Llewyn’s life is that he doesn’t realize he is merely existing in his current lifestyle. He’s made a record, but it’s owned by a label that has no interest in pushing it. He can perform on more professional tracks, as in the hilarious sequence where he helps Jim and another singer (Adam Driver) record a novelty, outer-space-themed song called “Please Mr. Kennedy.” But when he’s pushed about whether he can do harmonies on a regular basis, he answers honestly: “No. Yes, but no.” His partner’s death so haunts him that it’s pushed him to a prickly extreme. Help is available, but it involves him compromising the few ideals he’s got left.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a marriage of the hallmarks that represent what Joel and Ethan Coen have come to embody as filmmakers. There is an immediately catchy soundtrack produced by T Bone Burnett—aside from being extremely funny, “Please Mr. Kennedy” is a delightful listen. There is a delicious supporting turn from an actor in the Coens’ vast and talented stable of, to paraphrase the line from Raising Arizona, repeat oh-ffenders. Once more, the directors/writers/co-producers prove their nearly preternatural ability behind the camera, crafting a technically crisp, confident, and altogether accomplished product. And as with their best films, the Coens have recreated a preexisting world so alluring in spite of the distinct air of unending defeat permeating its characters, so enticing in spite of their personal failing and mistakes. There is rarely a higher compliment a person can pay a movie than the one that Inside Llewyn Davis earns: it’s so good that its worst fault is needing to end at some point. These films do not come along often, but when they do, they are worth celebrating. That Joel and Ethan Coen have made such a film is both unsurprising and thrilling. By now, it nearly goes without saying, but once again, they’ve made one of the best of the year.
— Josh Spiegel