The newest entrée from the brothers Coen is the take of a down on his luck folk singer in Greenwich Village in the early 1960’s. Not particularly popular, he scrapes together meager amounts of cash with local gigs and gets by due to the kindness of friends and acquaintances offering up their homes, couches and floors for him to rest his head. When we first meet Llewyn Davis, he is in his element, delicately plucking at an acoustic guitar and mournfully crooning a song about suicide (well, assisted suicide, I guess) entitled “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” Llewyn doesn’t look particularly happy, but you can tell he is at the very least contented in the moment by his art.
Unfortunately for him, it’s pretty much all downhill from there. We soon learn that Llewyn isn’ much for tasting success, and is beset upon by the world at nearly every turn. He got nothing from his solo record, and can’t even afford a winter coat in the snowy, bitter cold. His carelessness results in a housecat escaping from an upscale apartment at which he is crashing, and he must find a way to care for an animal when he can barely care for himself. It becomes apparent quickly that the death of his musical partner (Mike Timlin, an unfortunately distracting name for Boston Red Sox fans) via suicide weighs on him profoundly, and has thrown him off whatever paltry course his life may have had.
Inside Llewyn Davis does not have much plot or structure to latch onto, dropping us in media res into a week in Llewyn’s life. He flits from place to place, interacting with a host of colorful, Coen-y characters on his travels, though never for long. There’s the wrathful former lover (Carey Mulligan) and her milquetoast boyfriend/musical partner (Justin Timberlake). There’s the cowboy hat flaunting bass singer with identity issues (Adam Driver). Likely the most overtly Coen-esque characters in the film are the two madmen with whom Llewyn travels to Chicago, who are essentially caricatures of Dr. John (John Goodman) and Jack Kerouac (Garrett Hedlund). And then, of course, there’s the cat, a wonderfully adorable and expressive little orange tabby who is important enough to the marketing that he received a TV spot entirely devoted to his escapades. All of these characters (and more) bring something to the table, but their chief purpose in the film is to act as mirrors, ciphers and sounding boards, giving us insight into Llewyn as a man.
Oscar Isaac (who most would know as Standard, the ex-con husband from Drive) has a hell of a singing voice, and the perfect face for the nuance needed to make this film work. Everything rests on his shoulders (including, often, the cat), and you can almost see the heft of the world weighing down on him. He fills Davis with a sort of stubborn pride; he clearly despises asking others for help and favors, but knows he has no choice. He certainly has a misanthropic streak to him, and is at times quick to lash out in anger the next time his life decides to make him a cosmic joke, and you can see why Carey Mulligan’s character would be so exasperated by his presence. But there’s so much more to him than that. Isaac and the Coens do a clever thing with the lack of structure of Inside Llewyn Davis. There are no flashbacks or voice-overs to tell us who Llewyn Davis is or why he acts the way he does. And yet, despite this, we find out quite a bit about his history through the course of the 105 minute tale, all coming out naturally via present actions and conversations. The way his partner (unseen anywhere other than an LP cover that looks like it was from another life, if not another world) hangs over the film and Llewyn like a specter is such a potent force, strongly reminiscent of the titular character from Hitchcock’s classic Rebecca, the textbook for unseen characters who otherwise dominate the events. Llewyn Davis sang folk songs with his partner to make a living. Now he sings them without his partner to stay alive.
The Coens broke away from longtime collaborator Roger Deakins (who chose to spend his 2013 energy on Dennis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, a beautiful film in its own right) for Inside Llewyn Davis, tapping interim cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Across the Universe, Amelie) to step behind the camera. His work here is most effective in the way it plays with color. This slice of New York (and Chicago) is drab and worn in, almost like the film stock had been put through a washing machine 100 times without color safe detergent. The hues are faded and pale, reinforcing both the deep chill of Llewyn’s demeanor and the bone-chilling cold of winter. It makes for an understated but splendid look and feel to the proceedings (and an impressive indication of range from Delbonnel, whose more famous work is inventive, imaginative and color-rich), to the point that Deakins is surprisingly not as missed as one might expect him to be. The other major creative partner in crime, T-Bone Burnett, is back for his fourth go-around, after providing the songs for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and additional support on The Ladykillers and The Big Lebowski. The music and songs of Inside Llewyn Davis, a mix of preexisting music and brand new tunes written expressly for the film, are bolstered by Isaac’s dynamite voice and performances (the biggest track, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” is a stunner), and reinforce the central themes of the film with ease. The Coens have always been excellent at evoking a mood, and the work of Burnett and Delbonnel ensure that to be no different here.
There are quite a few moments of levity in this film, from the absurd silliness of a novelty song recording session with Timberlake and Driver (one of the funnier individual scenes of 2013, to be honest; Driver is a marvel) to many of the interactions with Goodman and Hedlund. These may be the sort of moments you might expect from the Coens, but in the context of Inside Llewyn Davis they represent a necessary slice through the dark clouds that otherwise obscure much of the picture. This is a film much closer to No Country for Old Men or The Man Who Wasn’t There than Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski on the scale of Coen brothers whimsy, and you feel it all through Oscar Isaac. Isaac is the big winner here, and should (if there is any justice in this industry) be a star after this one. He grounds the movie in a deeply felt, resonant sadness (buoyed by the film’s ending, a provocative decision that can’t really be discussed in any non-spoiler fashion). For a film that simply tries to show us how one act can so define and derail a man, even if the act itself is beyond his control, Inside Llewyn Davis is an immensely satisfying experience, and proof positive that the Coens remain at the top of their game.