#23 — Inside Llewyn Davis (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2013)
No other filmmakers thwart their characters’ ambitions and unravel their dreams with quite the same aplomb as Ethan and Joel Coen. The brothers are often lauded for their uncanny ability to craft precise buffoonery on screen, sending dimming bulbs into ill-conceived adventures with tragically misplaced confidence. That’s entertaining, to be sure. But the Coens also have a keen sense on how people from all points of the intellectual spectrum have a way of orchestrating professional, spiritual, and personal self-immolation, going into a game of life that already has long odds and somehow skewing the numbers further out of their favor. As played by Oscar Isaac, the nineteen-sixties folk troubadour Llewyn Davis is no fool, but he blunders nonetheless.
Inside Llewyn Davis sets Greenwich Village as its home base, following the title character as he strains to maintain his fledgling career, unaware that a scruffy, skinny kid born with the name Robert Zimmerman is waiting just offstage, tuning his guitar. The are indignities and troubles aplenty, including a rootlessness that sends him scuffling from one friend’s couch to the next and an eroding relationship with the money shufflers needed to allow for the continued plying of his tuneful trade. Llewyn can’t even successfully complete the basic task of keeping a cat from slipping away. Even the feline in question seems more solidly equipped for escaping to better things.
The Coens and their collaborators are incredibly skilled at evocatively recreating a time and place, and Inside Llewyn Davis is adoring in its recreation of a bygone era of acoustic guitars and freedom-pining singalongs. Thankfully, the Coens are as firmly committed to developing complicated characters to move through those nostalgic trappings. With acute psychological insight and an almost peerless talent for crafting dialogue, the Coens create a wholly immersive film. The journey of Llewyn is messily poignant, and Isaac brings a wounded truth to the character’s gradual acquiescence to the reality of his disappearing prospects. The film is bleakly funny and piercingly dramatic, strewn with telling moments that resonate like a guitar string that sustains its vibration for a miraculous amount of time. The marvelous melancholy of Inside Llewyn Davis endures.