Inside Llewyn Davis (2013): Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, and Garrett Hedlund. Running Time: 105 minutes.
Fans of the Coen brothers, possibly my personal favorite pair of directors currently in the business, have long noted that a great many of their films are just as much about capturing the essence of a specific time and place as they are about story and characters (if indeed there is a “story” at all). It’s hard to imagine the plot of Fargo having the same emotional resonance outside a land as numbingly flat and a culture as unfailingly polite as that of the northern Midwest. Take the characters of No Country For Old Men away from the crime-ridden border between Mexico and Texas, and the entire story simply wouldn’t happen. True Grit is a Western, and like any proper Western, the vast, lonely landscape is an entire character in and of itself. A Serious Man, while not relying so much on a specific location, is a film very much set within affluent Jewish-American culture. In their latest entry, a meandering tale of a young musician struggling to make it, the Coens choose as their setting the New York Greenwich Village music scene circa 1961, just before the folk music revival sparked by the arrival of legends like Bob Dylan.
Llewyn’s sad, jaded, and cynical face is both the first and the last thing we see. On both occasions, he’s performing at the Gaslight Café, singing a mournful ballad of a man who’s less afraid of death than he is of lying alone and cold beneath the earth for Lord knows how long. Like all of the songs Llewyn sings over the course of the film (the aptly-named Oscar Isaac, along with the rest of the cast, did his own singing for the soundtrack), you can hear a great amount of himself in the music and words. He is clearly talented, and clearly passionate about what he does, and yet his career appears to be leading nowhere. In part, this is because of difficulties with his efforts to reinvent himself as a singer following the death of his longtime collaborator Mike (whose voice in several recordings is provided by Markus Mumford). The frustration all this brings him is kicked up a notch when he learns that a fellow aspiring performer has already landed a major record deal with a good agent, despite the fact that, in Llewyn’s view, he lacks “higher brain functions.”
He's one of the more sympathetic Coen protagonists we've gotten in awhile, but being able to sympathize with Llewyn doesn't mean we are able to like him very much- his constant streak of bad luck is topped only by his incredible ability to offend everyone who tries to help him, along with his tendency to get other people’s girlfriends pregnant (while also trying to borrow money from them). Even his reverence for music is pushed to an alienating extreme- he’s offended when friends ask him to play at parties and disgusted when an audience sings along with a performance. His life seems to consist of one long, endless cycle- perform, record a song or two, grab a few bucks, infringe on the hospitality of a small checklist of friends, insult everyone in the room, get thrown out, rinse, wash, repeat- and by the end you can’t help but feel that, like Sisyphus pushing his boulder, he’s damned to repeat this cycle forever. This conclusion is aided by the fact that it’s left deliberately vague how often all this has happened before.
This journey through Llewyn’s own personal Hell is broken only by the musical numbers, where the movie graciously pauses to let the sound of the music fill out the corners of the scene. There is no effort to rush through any of them or push them into the background- when it’s time for someone to sing, that becomes, for a brief moment, the center of the entire film. Although I could understand some claiming these scenes are superfluous non-sequitors, I felt they served the crucial purpose of reminding us why Llewyn cannot bring himself to stop performing, even as his chances at success grow longer with each passing day. In a way, music is the only thing that really humanizes him time and again. He lies, he smooth-talks, he insults, he sinks to a number of lows in just the few short days of his life we see, but when he sings, he can’t help but abandon all of his otherwise omnipresent pretensions and worries. The music simply doesn't allow it. He’s certainly no hero, but neither is he a villain. Like most people, he’s somewhere in that every-murky middle area.
For the attentive viewer, there are a few amusing shout-outs to previous Coen films. In a brief detour to Chicago, Llewyn shares a car with John Goodman’s sharp-tongued jazz musician and his “chauffeur,” a man whose scarcity of speech can’t help but remind one of Steve Buscemi’s recalcitrant partner in Fargo. Llewyn himself, a man struck by one round of seemingly random bad luck after another, may remind others of the equally hapless Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man. And in a particularly apt turn, we learn that the cat whose escapades keep getting Llewyn into trouble is named Ulysses, after the Greek legend whose adventures inspired O Brother Where Art Thou (and which also featured an exploration of American musical genres).
It’s always an odd experience watching a film with a protagonist who’s constantly deceptive, yet feels so genuine in their own way. That’s one of the great strengths of how the Coen brothers exercise their craft- they can make even their most extreme, weirdest, off-beat characters feel like real people they happened across in a pub, in some tucked-away corner of the world. That strength is on full display here, but it's not the only thing that makes this movie something special in a year full of retreads, sequels, and reboots- more than being about any one character, Inside Llewyn Davis is also about music as an art form in and of itself, and how devotion to an art can both elevate us and pull us down, and how there's sometimes no real reason for either one to happen. It's a small film, and a quiet film, and it certainly won’t please some, but there are few other films in their canon that find the Coens in such solid artistic form.