Inside Llewyn Davis is as existentially relentless and brutalizing as No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man, but it gets there by way of The Big Lebowski’s gentle and lackadaisical character riffing. In some ways, that makes it more difficult to bear; it is both crushing and compassionate at the same time. And as is the Coens’ wont, it also features some wonderful music.
The movie opens on a shot of a microphone in The Gaslight Cafe in New York City, circa 1961, as Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) performs a mesmerizing and haunting rendition of “Hang Me Oh Hang Me.” He sings like he’s trying to cut a cancer out of himself, like there’s some dark abyss open before him that only he can see, and the song is what keeps his foothold. Other performers Llewyn bounces across over the course of the film – the couple and duo of Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), and the wholesome Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) – aren’t at all bad. But they sing with that hollow spaciness you sense when the singer’s just enjoying a beautiful tune and thinking of what a wonderful place the world is.
The Coens reportedly based much of the film’s aesthetic on the cover of the album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” which depicts the icon strolling down a wintry street with his girlfriend. Yet the picture still communicates a homespun folk music warmth despite the ostensible cold. Inside Llewyn Davis’ Chicago and New York, by contrast, are rendered in bleak, blue-grey winter-scapes. Thanks to Isaac’s superb performance, you can fill the chill slowly eat away at Davis’ spirit. It’s a bracing example of the way the spirit of a setting can utterly flip depending on the power and privilege and vulnerability of the person walking through it.
The way the Gaslight Cafe is shot involves the same ominous inversion. The shadows and soft light lenses create a dreamscape where a person can either coalesce from the shadows – as Dylan himself briefly does late in the film – or dissipate into them.
This is a film about all the people who didn’t become Bob Dylan, even though, God knows, they tried. It’s not even about the ones who, like Jim, had enough modest success with frivolous diddies to secure a decent middle class living. It’s about the ones who fell all the way, while life slowly grinds them into the realization that they will not be who they thought they’d be and they will not do what they thought they’d do. As Eileen Jones pointed out in Jacobin, Inside Llewyn Davis is attuned to the daily humiliations and cruel logistical jokes impoverishment inflicts on those caught in its grip. The film might be the most accessible example of the Coens’ distinctly un-American comfort with depicting failure – which is to say, depicting the majority of human life as it is actually lived.
The Coen’s trademarked humor is still there, with its dropped phrases, crossed communication wires, and odd verbal tics. But it’s less in evidence than in their other work. Inside Llewyn Davis is a slow, quiet, and observant film. It might be too painful to watch if it weren’t for the music, and for the modest capacity for kindness Llewyn learns. “That’s all I got,” Llewyn tells his audience after singing the film’s final song, and the declaration comes with a friendliness and generosity we haven’t heard from him before. But the line still lands with all the awful weight the Coens intend.