Ever since walking out of the theater after watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis I’ve tried to pick the perfect adjective to define the film’s titular character. “Asshole” was certainly a heavy consideration, as it’s the preferred insult thrown at Llewyn by Jean, the lead’s tempestuous former lover, played by Carey Mulligan. Ultimately, however, I settled on “Loser.” The term fits easily in the pejorative sense, as he is a deadbeat who spends his weeks couch-surfing and hitchhiking, but really it’s the definitive sense that fits flawlessly. Llewyn Davis is a man who loses. All together Inside Llewyn Davis is a beautiful, sad/funny folk song about failure – but the ending irony is that the film succeeds on every level.
Set over the course of a week, the movie follows Llewyn as he desperately tries to keep his head above water navigating the folk music scene of New York City’s Greenwich Village in 1961. Recovering from the suicide of his best friend and singing partner, he works to establish himself as a solo act, but with his caustic and cynical attitude he finds himself constantly surrounded by blood-boiling cheap phonies and sell-outs doling out disappointment and rejection around every corner. He’s unable to keep any portion of his life in working order – losing his friend’s cat, impregnating his best friend’s girlfriend, mission out on big breaks – and it all contributes to a never-ending, self-fulfilling cycle of defeat.
It’s a great credit to star Oscar Isaac that a character as bullheaded, ornery and misanthropic as Llewyn can come to life and be as entertaining and engaging as he is in the film. As bad an attitude as the protagonist may have, he earns respect from the audience, not necessarily for his convictions or even the fact that he’s right, but because he’s both entertaining to watch on a comedic, Buster Keaton level and incredibly talented as a musician. From the very opening of the movie, which features Llewyn sitting on a starkly-lit stage in a café singing a rendition of Dave Van Ronk’s “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” we become entranced by the soul in Isaac’s vocal and guitar performance and that impression only grows stronger over the course of multiple performances in the story.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Coen brothers film without a roster of terrific character actors as off-beat supporting players. Llewyn’s path through small vignettes that make up his week find him connecting with a full variety of friends, family members and strangers who almost exclusively bring out the worst in him, painting a handsomely hideous portrait of the lead while also weaving a smart, funny and entertaining story. Mulligan’s Jean is a scene-stealer thanks to an acid tongue that rightly and regularly calls out Llewyn on his bullshit and cuts him down to size, but really every performer puts on a markedly memorable performance, from Adam Driver as a baritone-voiced backup singer on a stupidly catchy pop song called “Please Mr. Kennedy” to Coen veteran John Goodman as a patronizing, dickish jazz musician who takes every opportunity he can to belittle Llewyn’s very existence. It’s a collection of characters you’d learn about in a Bob Dylan song, each one adding their bit of color to a world covered in grey.
Reflecting the general misery of the lead character, the atmosphere of Inside Llewyn Davis is painted in muted tones and deep contrasts and has its own unique dark beauty. After years of working with the genius Roger Deakins, the Coens put the photography in the hands of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, but rather than suffering in the shadow of his predecessor he has lit and filmed one of the directors’ most gorgeous films to date. Soft lighting brings the chill of a New York winter right into the theater, while darkness surrounding Llewyn as he plays a set develops an isolation for the character while creating an intimacy for the audience.
Due to the fact that the Coen brothers are two of my favorite filmmakers, I hold their movies to a different standard when I enter a theater and I am constantly amazed at how they continue to produce at such an astonishing, brilliant level. Each time out they present something bold, innovative and different. While the musical influence may remind audiences of the great O Brother Where Art Thou and the pitch black humor is in the same vein as A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis is unlike anything the directors have made and is a phenomenal piece of art.