After an unusually long gap for the insanely prolific Coen Brothers (three whole years!), they make damn-sure they remind us why we wait with such anxiety and anticipation for each release bearing their sibling stamp. With fantastic attention to detail, a well-realized sense of place that is all too familiar yet curiously distant, and a surprisingly laid-back yet aching, distraught screenplay backing them, Inside Llewyn Davis is their best release since No Country for Old Men and dangerously close to one of their top five films ever. It works as a meandering tribute to the underbelly of the greasy, cut-throat New York folk scene, an homage to the freewheeling works of James Joyce and their ability to uphold the common man as a mythic wanderer, and a picaresque exploration of the the day-to-day doldrums of human existence that combines unaffected social realism and moments of more obviously filmic, signature Coen Brothers flights of subtle fantasy. It’s an altogether plaintive film, but a deeply felt one with cheer tempered by aimless loss that chills to the bone.
If it seems a little slow, and if it seems that scenes don’t advance any particular conception of “plot” we like to apply to seemingly every film, well that’s the point: Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling but talented folk artist at the birth of the 1960s New York folk scene, is stagnant and doesn’t move forward, sometimes as a result of his own doing, and the film by golly isn’t going to give him a leg up when neither he nor the world around him will. The film meanders around a plot involving him trying to survive Tin Pan Alley, taking care of a cat, and going to the Mid-West to audition for a record company executive, but it’s mostly a slice-of-life examination of troubled art and human loneliness as he hops from apartment to apartment and finds himself too busy with the day-to-day to ache to find time for his music.
Of course, that’s the central tension of the film, and indeed of art in general: the very ache that gives life and earth to impassioned music rooted in personal-troubles also makes that life unlivable and threatens the existence of the art it breeds in the first place. The Coens give this tension its due in Davis, a stand-in for artists everywhere. But, make no mistake: they are moralists, remember, and they aren’t here to “help” a character who all-but refuses to connect with other human beings by giving him a story – he is a near-genius, or at least an undeniably talented journeyman, but he’s suffocated by the world around him. They’re here to watch, not to lend a helping hand.
The film’s tone is detached but at times shockingly kind-hearted for the famously icy filmmakers who have made a career hiding a contempt for society within quirky humour and general amusement. That’s all here, of course, and rendered even dryer than usual. But there is a sense of sympathy for Issac that their other films lack, a humanism found in a true understanding that the world, and not he, is getting him down. Their other films, from the stone-cold nihilism of No Country to seemingly lighter fair like their classic Fargo, are steeped in a low-key superiority to their characters, even an anger at them for their lack of passion in the world – they turn the artifice of indie filmmaking loved by auteurs such as Wes Anderson on its head and see it for a moral decay underneath. They see a world populated by people who don’t care about other people and are stricken by their lies and deceit, their need to put up distancing artifice, having consumed them and taken control of their boring everyday conversations.
Inside Llewyn Davis is no different in a sense, but there’s a more aching humanity here and a sense of existential sympathy, a shared bond between the writer-directors as artists and their central figure and a respect for him in their bitingly sly humor at his expense. It’s a much warmer film, in other words. In another world, we see that Llewyn could care. Perhaps then, we see the key difference in this film from their other works: if they aren’t here to help their main character, they don’t want to hurt him either, and we come to see that this film, which sits back and watches him and tells his story , as an example of their revealing art, is their attempt at help in the only way they know how, the way artists like Llewyn do when they use their art to bring life to a tragedy left untold elsewhere. They’re exposing him and revealing his story for the world, something their character never got in his time.
Which of course brings us back to the Coen’s trademark devil, here played by F. Murray Abraham. Beelzebub appears in almost all of their films, although he always bears a different name. He also serves different roles – here he’s uncharacteristic: restrained, quietly imposing, and not played by John Goodman, who appears in another role. The one scene the devil appears in marks him visually: while the film deals in natural light and mundane everyday graininess, here the visuals convey a trip to the quiet hell of the corporate music world, that ultimate double-edged sword of any musician. Llewlyn goes to him with hope and comes away with despair – only, tellingly, his expression changes little in the interim. The scene is dark and spookily distant, conveying the corporate world as an enigma Llewyln can’t understand. The thing is, however, he can’t understand anyone else either.
It’s almost impossible to watch the figure Llewyn is presented with here and not think of another portrait of struggling talent – Antonio Salieri, also played by Abraham thirty years prior, in Amadeus. Only there, Salieri’s anger had a target – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the film gave us passionate opulence and ragged heat and smoldering operatic decadence to match. This modern-day Salieri is the other side of the coin – a man of equal talent who’s angered not by a man but a world he presumes is out to get him. In turn, it provokes not pinpoint disdain and rage to fuel passion, the kind that might help an artist if they had a target, but malaise and indiscriminate anger at any and all targets. When a more talented figure haunts the film’s conclusion, the kind of figure who could stoke a fire in this modern day Salieri, Llewyn finds himself right back where he started, barely able to observe for his own disgruntled humanity, and kicked out before he has time to even consider it. This is a tribute to art, sure, but it’s also a tribute to life as a mundane formless void where the only good things are the little moments of kindness Llewyn finds on the way. Equal parts Chaplin’s effervescent sweetness and Wilder’s caustic cynicism, and as probing as both, it feels like a recently unearthed long-forgotten record, discovered in the attic and dusted off for one final go-around. It’s not unlike the old songs dusted off for the film, which run the gamut from haunting to mockingly, artificially joyous. Maybe in that attic you’ll find one of LLewyn’s pieces, continuing his assumedly forgotten memory and doing him one final bid of homage. Plus, as the directors themselves have said, there’s always the cat.