Of the many pleasures in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, the one that inspires the most gratitude in me is the sibling writer-directors’ ability to be sentimental about an era while steadfastly refusing to give in to undue romanticism. Their depiction of the early-nineteen-sixties folk scene in New York City in the days before a skinny kid from Minnesota showed up and changed everything is packed with lovingly chosen details, especially the music, shaped by the invaluable T-Bone Burnett. That is the landscape of the picture, though not the soul. Joel and Ethan Coen set their film in a place and time while fully understanding the need for it to be about a person rather than the trappings that surround him. To that end, they’ve created Llewyn Davis, played with a perfectly calibrated withdrawn intensity by Oscar Isaac. A spiritual cousin to Larry Gopnik, of the Coens’ A Serious Man, Llewyn is pressing on wearily as the fates seem determined to deliver him an endless succession of problems and setbacks. Blaming it on unseen forces is misguided, as nearly every dilemma Llewyn endures is causes by his own choices, his own selfishness and stubbornness. The Coens offer no absolution because he’s an artist nor special condemnation. He is simply a flawed human being, whose flaws feed his struggles.
As usual, the Coens make the film into a feat of writing, with sharply observed characters and situation. Besides Isaac as Llewyn, there are rich roles for Carey Mulligan (as a folk singer who Llewyn has had a problematic dalliance with) and John Goodman (as a sour, imperious jazz musician who squabbles with Llewyn on a road trip to Chicago), and both performers step up with clever, creative work. Even F. Murray Abraham manages to suggest a fully-formed character with a single scene, albeit perhaps the strongest scene in the film, one that is riveting in its simplicity. Continuing a creative trend for the Coens, spare, efficient storytelling is the defining characteristic of Inside Llewyn Davis. The brothers who once seemed to be testing how much visual tomfoolery and pure mayhem they could get away with in every film have settled into disciplined masters of narrative, confident that the insights within their vision will satisfactorily give the film heft and meaning. Their guitar-strumming hero is mired in failure. The Coens, on the other hand, are in a stretch that’s as strong as any in their shared career.