Inside Llewyn Davis
Trying to firmly grasp the Coen brothers' philosophy towards life is a fool's errand. Their pictures are as elusive as they are distinct, bringing equal measures of screwball wit and sincere pathos to narratives that engage with life's absurdities more often than with its profundities. They don't aim to espouse any particular form of beliefs so much as they choose to stare blankly in the face of life's most pointedly ironic cruelties, observing and depicting and provoking without editorializing. They don't presume to solve the universe's mysteries -- they just want us to look at them.
Yet, that's not to suggest that each of their films isn't its own individual tableaux. "Inside Llewyn Davis" is their 16th picture, and it quickly establishes itself as being unlike anything they've made before. Oscar Isaac stars as the title character, an under-appreciated crooner of downbeat folk songs. They watch him for a week while he couch-surfs through Greenwich Village and road-trips across the Midwest, in the early '60s, while dealing with a largely-obfuscated personal tragedy. The Coens normally work in a tone either manic or epic -- here, they play in a minor key.
For example, their approach to directing this picture follows no genre standards, in a very unusual turn for them: The comedy here is apparent but not overbearing; narrative and character arcs are nearly non-existent; to even suggest the film is a musical would be a crass exaggeration. This is a painting of grief, of life's disappointments, of missed opportunities that will never return, and it's devoid of attempts to ingratiate itself with anyone who finds themselves watching it.
The Coens and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel conjure up a frigid world that likely never existed in their photography: The '60s are remembered by pop culture, full of coffee houses and proto-hipster musicians and stoic artists intermixed with uptight professor types. Each frame looks like the cover of a record that's been gathering dust in a garage for five decades, full of faded grays, wilted greens, and muted primary colors. The film positions itself as a lost artifact from an imagined world, one that few even bother to imagine much anymore -- a perfect treatment for a narrative about an artist that no one was ever going to bother to remember.
Isaac embodies that artist with a soulfulness that carries the weight of a lifetime of struggles. His ruggedly masculine visage evokes pain at every turn: He plays Llewyn as a man who can't help but continue investing himself in things that won't pay off, and as a man who can't keep maintaining an even keel in the face of those disappointments. He carefully picks the moments where the anger and frustration bubbles up, and plays every other sequence with a debilitating depressed tone. Even in his most light-hearted moments, he oozes vulnerability: The vague disinterest on his face while recording with friends, the blank stare he offers while driving his leg of a road trip. He's too stoic to ask for kindness, too lonely to function without it, and too abrasive to receive it -- a man in a stalemate.
Davis is saddled with a number of cats throughout his journey, and his eyes funnel all his kindness into the relationships with them. The cats, of course, always run away. In other words, this is another melancholic reverie from the Coens, despite oft-hilarious interludes (one of Llewyn's misadventures, revolving around an anti-space-travel ditty sung by Justin Timberlake's character, is an instant-entry in their canon of great comedic moments). Davis is a stand-in for thousands of artists throughout time -- all those men and women who had the skill to succeed and none of the luck.
The Coen brothers don't put their characters through hell for nothing, after all. They say that men make plans, and God laughs. Watching the Coen brothers' films, watching their characters be put through the wringer, we're encouraged to recognize that futility, abandon the idea of conquering it -- and to laugh back.