This might seem like a strange observation, but it’s a reaction I can’t quite shake: I think Inside Llewyn Davis is the gentlest film Joel and Ethan Coen have ever made. There’s a lot of aggression across the shared filmography of the brothers, and not just because their penchant for blood-soaked crime stories (or at least bumbling kidnappers). There was a time when they were known–and occasionally dismissed–for their especially dynamic visual style, which made even their lightest efforts into bounding, madcap experiences. And then they had a special talent for putting their characters through dilemmas that were simultaneously mundane and pitched towards extreme anxiety, perhaps best manifested in recent years in the exceptional A Serious Man. The Coens have certainly set Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) up to endure a dispiriting series of setback in the movie that bears his name, but there’s no evident glee to take from his travails, no sense that the brothers are darkly amused by seeing how much their character can bear. Instead, there’s a rueful quality that suits the stark, lovely folk songs that Llewyn sings. There’s no tornado bearing down, metaphorical or otherwise. He’s just stuck in a life where they skies are unlikely to lighten from perpetual gray.
Drawing inspiration from the life of musician Dave Van Ronk, the Coens set the film in the Greenwich Village of 1961, when there was a prominent though hardly lucrative circuit of folk clubs allowing any number of troubadours to intone earnestly while accompanied by the instrument strapped across their shoulders. Here, Llewyn plies his craft with little discernible possibility of upward mobility. He’s released an album with a rundown little label and spends his time pleading for a couch or floor to stay on, circulating around a small contingent of friends and supporters. At his core, he’s clearly haunted by the absence of a former partner, which only adds to his melancholy view of life. He’s got no real plans for the future, a disappointing past he’d rather not revisit, and his present isn’t looking so hot either. With this setting–perfectly realized, thanks in no small part to support in the conception of the music by the invaluable T Bone Burnett–the Coens create a piercing, wryly funny character study.
Maybe the most interesting thing about the Coens’ storytelling is their dedication to mirroring the stasis and dashed promise of their lead character. Throughout the film, there are plot points that are clearly set up and yet not quite delivered upon. This isn’t sloppy construction, but clearly a very deliberate choice. Someone like Llewyn doesn’t suddenly turn himself around to confront his own history and shortcomings, and looming problems don’t always fully manifest in time with the expected beats of a story. There are clear hints of future success that Llewyn will forever stand outside of, either because of a rushed, compromised choice on his part or merely bad timing. The Coens don’t need to turn every morsel of plot into a feast. They have the confidence to allow implication to carry the film.
The filmmakers also have the assurance that their actors are capable of giving the the work the heft that might otherwise need to come from spelling out the emotional turns of the story. Isaac is terrific as Llewyn, reacting to his challenges with a quietly expressive face. On the other side of the acting spectrum, there are nicely colorful performances by Coen regular John Goodman (as a unpleasantly egotistical jazz musician Llewyn travels with) and Carey Mulligan (as a fellow folk fixture on the Village scene with whom Llewyn has a complicated relationship). Even F. Murray Abraham, with essentially one key scene, is as good as he’s been in years, somehow implying his characters whole professional existence with the simplest of gestures and reactions. If the Coens have sometimes been clearly enamored with the riotous possibilities of a popping, complicated plot, Inside Llewyn Davis gives them the welcome chance to cinematically explore in a different way. They develop a place, a time, a series of precariously interconnected lives. The make a whole, convincing world, set to a plaintive tune.