“Life’s dealt me some bum cards, or maybe I just haven’t played ’em right,” so says ever-self-deprecating narrator Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There, one of the Coen Brothers’ several masterpieces. It’s a line that feels fitting to a few of their movies, but one which suits their latest, Inside Llewyn Davis, perfectly. To eschew any doubt, let’s be clear – this is one of the Coens’ more insular, character-driven movies. It’ll sit fine alongside Barton Fink or A Serious Man. It’s also their most poignant and heartfelt for some time. Maybe ever.
Because there’s always been that knowing smirk with the Coens. That wink. That nod. Something that says, “hey, it’s only a movie, lighten up”. There are moments like those in Inside Llewyn Davis, but by and large they are more notable for their absence. When they appear – usually at the expense of the more broadly comic aspects of the subject matter – they feel like curious intervals or reminders, signatures of the artists. The point is that here they are largely the exception to the rule. Inside Llewyn Davis is a cool, introspective, melancholic movie.
The year is 1961 and we are to spend a week or so in the company of the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Issac), a struggling folk musician who is still reeling from the death of his former creative partner – lost to suicide. Technically homeless, Llewyn survives on the good graces of his friends, and spends as much time couch-hopping as he does wearing out his welcome.
The Coens’ protagonists are never saints, and Llewyn is yet another addition to their canon of self-centred, temperamental leads. There’s an element of the existential anguish that plagued Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man, yet here it is less pronounced. Llewyn is far more jaded, more prone to weary acceptance than Job-like hand-wringing. Pained by the ground-swell success that seems to be growing for his friend and former-lover Jean (Carey Mulligan) and her new beau Jim (Justin Timberlake), Llewyn resigns his jealousy, chalking it up to another of life’s bum cards.
After seemingly exhausting his options in Greenwich Village, Llewyn takes a trip out to Chicago to see how his debut solo record is fairing. It is during this (marvelous) section of the film that Inside Llewyn Davis calls to mind beatnik bible On The Road. Llewyn finds similar transience in a fellow roaming musician Roland Turner (John Goodman); a larger-than-life, drug-addled blowhard with a young valet going by the improbable handle Johnny Five (Garret Hedlund).
One can’t help but wonder, given the relative failure of the recent adaptation of On The Road by Walter Salles (which also starred Hedlund), just what a Coens version would have been like. You can see a beautiful, bittersweet snapshot of it here as the three burn rubber through an unforgiving winter.
The cold permeates Inside Llewyn Davis, from the frosty elements and chilliness of Llewyn’s disposition to the greys and blues that dominate the colour scheme throughout. The Coens paint the movie with Llewyn’s moods. Some may bemoan that the film is listless, formless, without plot, but that rather misses the point. Inside Llewyn Davis is more about evoking a state of mind than telling a story. The events here are seen through Llewyn’s eyes. He is in every scene. It is from his perspective. The title of the movie is right on the nose; this is how Llewyn perceives the world – and it’s frozen him out.
It makes the film less of an easy sell than it may initially appear to be. There are warm elements to draw audiences in – some great songs (T-Bone Burnett is executive music producer, with the likes of Marcus Mumford on hand also) as well as the treat casting of the likes of the aforementioned Timberlake (in reality making little more than a cameo), but the reality is that Inside Llewyn Davis is a decidedly plaintive affair. It plays out like a folk song itself; quietly impressive, lamenting of easier times, alone against an uncaring world, loathe to offer closure.
That last point may be its undoing for some. By the end of the picture, Llewyn’s destiny isn’t clear. But then, like a Bob Dylan album cover, this is only a glimpse, a brief interval in a man’s life during which the world chisels away at him just that little bit more. Whether Llewyn survives the hardships he feels are stacked against him is not for me to say.
The Coen Brothers do like a running motif in their movies, be it echoing dialogue or visual recurrences. Here the movie is threaded by Llewyn’s mismanagement of an escaped cat. The crowd-pleasing moggy – or one very similar to it – proves reflective of Llewyn’s state of mind. He’s forever chasing after something to fix the present. Jean chastises him for his shortsightedness; how he never looks to the future. When Llewyn can’t even solve the problems within his grasp, it feels knowing. When he abandons them altogether, it’s a poignant reminder of how mature the Coens have become.
What saves Inside Llewyn Davis from feeling like an exercise in navel-gazing is the mastery that the Coens bring to their filmmaking. This movie is as beautifully rendered as anything else in their past. Working with cinematographer Bruno Debonnel for the first time helps mask an element of their signature ‘look’, but this is still a Coen Brothers film through and through. It’s a more human, more brittle place than we’ve particularly visited before, but there’s enough warmth here for us to crowd around and stretch our fingertips toward. When Llewyn sings on stage you can sense that’s all he wants too; to feel the warmth and find a way to stay in it just a little longer.