Now, for those who have had the intestinal fortitude to stick around despite such displays of wanton cruelty, let’s discuss the film at hand. Inside Llewyn Davis is the latest bit of Oscar bait from the Coen brothers – probably not in the “Best Picture” way that movies like Fargo and No Country For Old Men are, films with big name actors that attract large audiences. No – Inside Llewyn Davis is one of those other type of Coen movies: the “Best Screenplay” or “Best Cinematography” kind of films like A Serious Man or The Man Who Wasn't There; movies so quietly quirky that they only appeal to a small group of people (well, besides the hordes of film critics, that is). In short, Inside Llewyn Davis is a character study, a term which is usually a code for a film wherein the viewer is asked to forgo any expectations of plot in favor of spending quality time with people who are seriously flawed, emotionally unstable, or just plain old unlikable. Llewyn Davis, the titular character of this particular movie, is all three of those things and then some.
Llewyn is also incredibly talented, which mostly accounts for why many of the characters in the movie (and presumably we the audience as well) are willing to put up with him. Well, that and his appearance, which the ladies really seem to like. Unfortunately, talent only gets you so far, and looks eventually have to be backed up with something more substantial on the inside; that’s part of Llewyn’s problem as the movie opens. With a failed album of folk tunes the only thing to show for years of padding the streets of Greenwich Village, the narrative begins with an extremely bitter Llewyn near the end of his rope. He’s penniless, sleeping on the sofa of fellow folk singer Jim (whose wife and singing partner Jean is demanding that Llewyn pay for the abortion of the child that might be his), and saddled with an agent uninterested in promoting his brand of sincere music. And just to complicate his life even further, the cat Llewyn was supposed to be pet-sitting (not the sad one; we’ll get there) escapes out the window and disappears into the streets of New York.
The need to find both the money for Jane’s abortion and the missing cat are about all Inside Llewyn Davis offers in the way of plot, and both of those threads are semi-resolved about one-third of the way through the film. For the most part, the movie meanders along with Llewyn as he wanders around the Village, visits his infirmed father, hitchhikes to Boston in hopes of scoring a gig, and returns to New York for one last shot at making his music career work before giving up and shipping off with the Merchant Marine. The actual events are of little consequence, however, as they act only as the skeletal framework from which the Coens hang what they’re really interested in.
One of those things is the setting of the movie itself. With the exception of the side trip to Boston, the entire movie takes place over the course of one week during the winter of 1961 in Greenwich Village. This was right before the advent of Bob Dylan (one week to be exact) when it was still possible to pop into a coffee shop and catch folk singers warbling traditional melodies and simple love songs without their including long musical metaphors about burning draft cards. But just because Dylan isn’t there yet doesn’t mean his presence isn’t felt. Listen to the track “Talkin’ New York” off of his first album and you’ll recognize the scenery in this movie, right down to the coldest winter in seventeen years. The Coens have pretty much perfected the art of instilling a movie with a sense of place.
Obviously, because of the setting, the music is also of great importance, and if you're a fan of folk tunes, particularly those of the folk revival movement of the early sixties, then the soundtrack alone is worth the ticket price. What’s really nice is that the music isn’t just background noise to set a mood. Much as they did in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens and producer T. Bone Burnett turn the music into a character itself, as integral to the film as any of the people on-screen. Each song, which in a nice touch is almost always heard in its entirety, acts almost as a sort of Greek chorus commenting on the emotional state of the characters at any given moment during the film. The film wouldn’t be half as successful as it is without the music.
Still, given that this is a Coen brothers film, it’s the characters that are the main attraction. Picking out a favorite is difficult. Justin Timberlake’s turn as the always chipper cuckold Jim is surprisingly endurable, as is Carey Mulligan’s vitriolic, manipulative Jean. John Goodman unsurprisingly chews the scenery as a bizarre cross between New Orleans musician Dr. John and Jackie Gleason from The Hustler, who offers a glimpse into the man Llewyn could ultimately turn into. And as in any Coen production, even the most innocuous walk-ons are given moments to shine: Garrett Hedlund gets to channel a bit of the beat poets as John Goodman’s detached driver; Stark Sands has fun as the squeaky clean folk singer whose military work ethic plagues Llewyn throughout the film; and Adam Driver gets to wash the stink of HBO’s Girls off himself for a moment so that he can steal his scene as a yokel-turned-session musician. (I could roll off half a dozen more, but you get the point.) Heck, the Coens even give the cat an Academy Award moment (wait for it).
But, let’s face it – with a title like Inside Llewyn Davis, the movie rises and falls on Oscar Isaac’s performance as the title character. It’s a hard sell, because Llewyn is basically a self-absorbed judgmental jackass who can’t make a good decision even when the right answer is provided to him beforehand. But much like Jack Nicholson did with a similar character way back in Five Easy Pieces (the two films have a lot of similarities if you look at them close enough), Isaac manages to expose the emotional core of Llewyn, and it makes him completely watchable, even when we don’t like him that much. Basically, two things drive Llewyn: one is his unbending artistic vision, which causes him to look down on most, if not all, of his peers, and to avoid most any decision that would grant him even minor long-term financial benefits. Llewyn is the Artist, and the film celebrates that, even as it shows what an insufferable jerk such a person can often be.
It’s the second thing, however, that wins some of our sympathies for Llewyn. Though it only rises to the surface briefly, just bubbling underneath at all times is Llewyn’s near unbearable grief over the suicide of his once singing partner, Mike. It’s a loss from which he doesn’t seem to be able to recover. The Church has always taught that “the human person needs to live in society... [which] is not for him an extraneous addition, but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential.” And this need for “society” is especially true for Llewyn.
More than once during the movie, various characters point out (quite bluntly) that with his abrasive personality, Llewyn needs a partner in order to function properly. Without one, he becomes both intolerable and unmarketable. But due in part to Mike’s suicide, any meaningful relationship seems anathema to Llewyn, to the point that he can’t even allow himself the companionship of a pet. In a ridiculously moving scene, Llewyn is confronted with the desperate pleading face of the stray feline (whoever taught that cat to act deserves a medal) he reluctantly carried with him on the road. For a brief moment, it looks like Llewyn might actually give in and take the cat with him to Boston, but he finally slams the car door in the poor animal’s face. He no longer allows anyone or anything in, and it costs him in the end. The film finishes up with a scene mirroring the one with which it began. Llewyn has traveled far, but learned nothing.
So there you have it: if you enjoy meandering character studies or just have a fondness for folk music, Inside Llewyn Davis is definitely the Oscar bait you’ll want to see this season. However, if you prefer movies with a little more plot to them, or if you’re hypersensitive to the emotional wellbeing of cats, you might want to let this one pass.