Joel and Ethan Coen are the cool kids at the bar who tell stories that seem funny right until the sadness hits, then you think about them for a long time afterward. Despite their serial genre-hopping, they bring a remarkably consistent thematic and stylistic stamp to their work. When it was announced that Inside Llewyn Davis would be a Coen Brothers take on an outsider in New York City’s folk scene in the early ‘60s, we could all see it taking shape as if the Oscar reel was already edited: precisely shot, expertly cast, a study of loneliness in an oddball milieu punctuated by note-perfect music, courtesy of regular Coen collaborator T Bone Burnett. All that’s left is to let the darkly-comic melancholy steal across the theater seats.
In this alternate universe, New York folk musician Dave Van Ronk—a direct inspiration for the Coens and one of whose albums is titled Inside Dave Van Ronk—has transformed into the hapless, shiftless Llewyn Davis, who wanders through the city and out on the road, lost in a haze of half-connected friendships and adrift in conversations without an anchor. Actor Oscar Isaac, who’s spent years in supporting parts that didn’t deserve him, proves his mettle in Llewyn, delivering a flawed and deeply recognizable character who, in other hands, would be impossibly grating. He’s still a passive center in his own life, and he gives people nothing but sharp edges that occasionally become all-out dirty blows. But every flinch and dropped shoulder hides a despairing artist who knows he’s doomed to obscurity and is flattened by the foresight, driving him to a bone-weariness that gouges circles under his eyes.
And it’s easy to see why. Though the movie makes little outward judgment as to his talent—the only critique he gets is that his solo act doesn’t sell and won’t—it’s beside the point: His singing is so transformative, it’s essentially a superpower. Right from the opening “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in a murky room that fittingly pours two columns of light on stage just past him, each acoustic confession renders him unrecognizable, flush with certainty and sincerity utterly missing from his real life.
The Coens are more subtle than to use the film to make a conclusive statement about the necessity, objectivity or futility of art; in their slightly-askew universe, art for art’s sake is a state so natural, there’s no argument to make. (Plus, a cameo by a young Bob Dylan is a reminder that some people do just fine at their art.) There are numerous reminders of music as business—Llewyn bristles about musical commerce at a dinner party, endures a sharply-comic session gig for the novelty song “Please Mr. Kennedy,” gets handed remainders and gives a chill-inducing audition of “The Death of Queen Jane.” But, music here is less an achievement than a state of being. Llewyn’s only emotionally honest moment with accidental-flame Jean (Carey Mulligan, elevating her bitter-yet-sad mode above what she’s given) happens when he watches her singing onstage; the Coens sift light through it like the love scene it is.
With Llewyn such an untethered center, the movie’s less concerned with plot than it is with surreal folk idylls, not so much an album as a jam session among people who had to interrupt a fight to be there. The superb supporting cast, mostly new arrivals to the Coen stable, make their own uncanny valley between realism and mummery. From Justin Timberlake’s sickly-sweet sellout to F. Murray Abraham’s stone-faced insider, it’s no wonder Llewyn struggles to feel any forward motion. (His sister cuts through the crap, but it should surprise no one that he can’t take what he dishes out.) Only the self-made mythology of his stewardship of a runaway orange tabby delivers the most direct through-line to the movie, which he otherwise spends couch-surfing, gigging, arguing with Jean and ankle deep in comedy so dark, you can barely see it. After a nightmare cat-included excursion to Chicago highlights how helpless he is, his very shiftlessness provides stripped-down urgency. At the knife’s edge of being flat broke, he can’t even fall back on the Merchant Marines as a paycheck for lack of a hundred bucks cash. His options narrow, and his world gets smaller and smaller.
It’s a world as carefully rendered as the Coens can make it. The sepulchral Gaslight in the Village, the Africana-studded apartment of two Upper West Side professors, his nephew’s outer-borough bedroom, futuristic rest stops with their phalanxes of frosted globe lights: All are all given long, wide frames, lingering impressions of a time that’s already disappearing, flush with characters who are often ridiculous in direct proportion to their comfort. And while it’s wise to catch Isaac’s expertly expressive face as closely as possible whenever possible, the sly comedy of his displacement would be lost without the dismally outrageous world through which he dreamwalks. Tragedy is a close-up, comedy a long shot.
Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t a film that presses toward an inevitable end or skirts a single great achievement. It’s there to chart its hero’s discontent and the brief breaths of grace his music provides. It’s just a portrait of a lost man with a fleeting gift, and like a familiar song from another room, it’s an elusive, haunting tune.