The Coen Brothers' 'Inside Llewyn Davis' Is Soulful, Deeply Human, and Meditative
It may be best to consider Inside Llewyn Davis in the lineage of Barton Fink and A Serious Man. The new movie shares with those two a smaller mode, played out mostly in the minor key, and like those two films finds its main character — a folk singer down on his luck, in other words a prototypic Coen brothers shmuck — freewheeling and lost. Music is his medium, and the film is full of great folk covers pastiches, loving recreated by the great T. Bone Burnett, but only because the main character needs a metier of some sort. Llewyn could be anything: the thing is that he is lost, does not fit in, and does not know where he’s going. The picture posits this best in a confrontation between Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) and his some-time lover Jean (Carey Mulligan, over-acting), in which she accuses him of not considering his own future, and he tells her she’s selling out because she wants to make a living and settle down. Llewyn is a bum — a self-absorbed, casually cruel and vain man, who looks down on the mainstream, in much the same way The Dude sees everyone else as squares in The Big Lebowski — but unlike The Dude, Llewyn wants to succeed, wants to be recognised and to belong. His tragedy is his hopefulness.
The film begins in New York, where Llewyn is eking out an existence — the word is important in this film — by playing small-time gigs and sleeping on friends’ couches. Llewyn is always waiting for another paycheck, a new gig, wanting the amount of money that will help him get by, or the big chance that will help him make it big. Jean is pregnant, possibly by him, and asks him to foot her abortion bill. Staying with friends, Llewyn manages to lose their cat. He alienates friends, colleagues and family alike. On a whim, he heads to Chicago, to see if he can audition there for a powerful impresario.
The mid-picture scenes in which Llewyn heads to Chicago stand out as the boldest, most fluent and fully realised sequence in the film. The picture takes on an almost mystical, fable-like quality, as Llewyn finds himself driving to Chicago with a cat, an old cantankerous man (John Goodman, making light work of stealing the film) and his rockabilly “valet” (Garret Hedlund). Goodman’s character -a jazzer - stands for everything that Llewyn abhors, and he in turn makes clear to the young folk singer, in wonderfully blunt Coen brothers speak, how great is his disdain for him. Garret Hedlund, wordless and enigmatic throughout, stands for the Beat generation, but I think his quietness and the way the film deals with him signify the ultimate emptiness of that movement. In a lovely snow-bound scenes, the picture closes out this episode poignantly.
Inside Llewyn Davis strikes out from their previous work in making a bid for more emotional territory: at the heart of the film lies an emotional void, an absence. That is Llewyn’s former musical partner: how much he is missing from Llewyn’s life is made clear in some touching scenes, played well by Isaac. Isaac in fact plays all his scenes very well, making his character a sort of vector for the film’s events: he has the right amount of passivity, and plays Llewyn’s careless naivety just right. By the end of the journey — because the film has a smart circular structure, bringing its story right round to the same point it began — you sense much more than at the beginning how worn out Llewyn is, how far he has gone without arriving anywhere. This is due to Isaac’s great performance as much as it is to the clever, careful script: salty and sly in the Coen manner, it also has a new soulfulness that is very welcome.
The film plays its symbolism a little heavily at times, making perhaps a bit too much of the cat and its parallel story. But there is so much craft, such good attention to detail — in the 60s recreation and the music that forms the backbone of the film, especially — and there are some very strong scenes full of observation and heart. I’m thinking of a crucial scene in which Llewyn visits his father: filmed starkly, it offers up a grimly dark comedy of manners, underplayed for even greater power.
Ultimately, this feels like a smaller Coen brothers film, a small fable revisiting their old wheelhouse of outsiders in an unforgiving world — but it seems to have a more personal touch, with some interesting allusions to Jewishness, death, and creative partnership. The stylistic exercises of music and period recreation are successfully done, but more than this, Inside Llewyn Davis stands out in the brothers’ work as a deeply human and meditative work.