Plenty of films exist about struggling young artists trying to be great and failing in the process. But Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis is unique in focusing on a great struggling young artist resigned to the idea of his own impending failure. Not surprisingly, sadness is one of the film’s strongest and most resonant themes, expressed primarily through Llewyn’s (Oscar Isaac) searching eyes, which convey yearning and defeat simultaneously. Yet the Coens match the character’s extended melancholy with a sense of narrative openness, especially in the random events that allow the meandering stream-of-consciousness story to exude hopeful qualities along the way.
Set in early 1960s Greenwich Village at the dawn of the folk music revolution, the film opens with the bearded Llewyn performing in medium shot in a smoky beatnik bar. From the outset, his raspy musical voice is honest and vulnerable, two traits that seem to vanish the second he must deal with the real world in any discernible way. Even more interesting, the audience in the film doesn’t quite jive with Llewyn’s brooding and inclusive musical persona. The crowd's lethargic faces look on in jest, proving the lack of connection between performer and patron. Much of Inside Llewyn Davis is about the often-futile attempts at translating original artistry into mass emotional consumption.
From the dimly lit stage to the only slightly brighter streets, jobless Llewyn aimlessly breezes from one NYC borough to the next, crashing on different friends' couches and dealing with the wake of conflicts he’s helped to cause. Time passes by slowly, and deceptively minor scenes involving Llewyn’s agent and family quickly build on each other both thematically and emotionally, adding to the film’s fluid and whimsical pace. Music is always in the air, with the Coens' sprinkling of full performances by Llewyn and other folk personalities throughout the film. But often it appears only the film's audience can hear their genius (and absurdity). They are all truly ahead of their time in one way or another.
An unexpected pregnancy involving the girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) of a close friend and the non-impact of his unsuccessful debut solo record prove to be small ripples in Llewyn’s life. Hilariously, what most films would construe as “major” melodramatic conflicts become dwarfed by a small inconvenience involving a friend’s cat that turns into a sublime romp through the city streets. Holding the feline tightly after its near escape, Llewyn sits noticeably out of place on the subway. In an amazing moment, the Coens show the cat’s face inquisitively peering out the window, awake to the kinetic world rushing by. Whether the animal is transfixed by its own reflection or the passing terminal signs remains one of the film’s great wonders.
If Inside Llewyn Davis shares the deceptively shapeless and wandering trajectory of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it feels profoundly breezy in a completely different way. This can be greatly attributed to Oscar Isaac’s heartbreaking performance, which gives even the smallest moment palpable weight. He even manages to convey an entire generation’s frustration and malaise in a single spoken farewell without the hint of indulgence. Llewyn understands that aside from bits of bad luck and potentially a few cultural circumstances, his life has been defined by missed opportunities involving love, family, success, and artistic creation. He may seem at peace with these failures on the surface, grooving with disappointment as if were his permanent dance partner. But those lovely eyes are all hurt. What’s inside Llewyn Davis is pure regret.
Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.