Inside Llewyn Davis feels like the Coen brothers’ answer to a question they must get all the time: “What should I expect if I want to pursue a filmmaking career?”
The reply isn’t pretty. The setting is the folk-music scene of 1961, where the title character (Oscar Isaac) is struggling to establish a career as a solo singer-songwriter (he previously had released an album as part of a folk duo). Llewyn isn’t exactly a starving artist, though he’s on the verge – sleeping on the couches of friends as they become available, desperate for session-musician gigs to pay for his next meal. All he has, really, is his music and the dwindling hope that he can somehow make a living playing it.
As it details the extinguishing of that dream, Inside Llewyn Davis registers as one of the bleakest pictures Joel and Ethan Coen have made (yes, we’re talking A Serious Man, No Country for Old Men and The Man Who Wasn’t There bleak). It’s not bitter, mind you – that might have been the case if the Coens had made this during the frustrations of their early career. Rather, this is the work of now-successful artists who have made it through to the other side with their integrity intact. (What other Best Picture winners have the committed despair of No Country for Old Men?)
Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t the sound of giving up, but of momentary gloom.
Perhaps that’s why the movie’s harshness is leavened at crucial points by the folk music – a genre that, even in its protest form, eschews the nihilism of punk for the vision of a better future. This isn’t to deny the bluesy-ness of the musical numbers – Isaac sets the mournful tone at the start with a version of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” – but rather to say that the gentle resignation of the songs speaks to the movie’s underlying indomitable spirit. Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t the sound of giving up, but of momentary gloom. And it’s also the sound of rejuvenation – the seeking of solace before setting out to struggle another day.
Isaac, a talented actor given his first starring role, is excellent as Llewyn, an artist whose gift is fully formed (his performances are wonderful), but who is still struggling with how to wield it. There’s a sense of entitlement to Llewyn as he disdainfully watches the other singers in the film: a soldier who dabbles in folk while on leave (Stark Sands); a former lover and her new beau (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake); and, especially, a folk-dabbling housewife (Nancy Blake). Llewyn’s outburst over the latter’s performance bookends the film, leaving us with the question of how much his artistry has matured in between.
Inside Llewyn Davis could have done more with Mulligan; she’s too good of an actress to be relegated to these few scenes, only the last of which allows her space to expand the character. And while the Coens’ trademark humor is certainly here, it’s occasionally at odds with the overarching air of melancholia. With cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel that’s nearly bleached of color, Inside Llewyn Davis is less effective as a Coen comedy than as a sort of rueful consolation for struggling artists of all kinds. Misery loves company, especially if that company can play the guitar.