Effusive, beautiful, foreboding, soulful, and darkly funny, Inside Llewyn Davis is a portrait of the artist as a failed man. It is a magpie’s nest of surrealism, a resplendently crafted time capsule, and an evocative vision of self-destruction. It throbs with melancholy, hunches under heavy skies, and leaves you dangling. In it and through it, Joel and Ethan Coen (Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski) celebrate the hard road that can inspire great art. It is a downright radical achievement.
Steeped in remorse and irresolution, Inside Llewyn Davis is a valediction to the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s, whose eponymous man of constant sorrows is a couch-hopping songster caught between the Scylla of selfless devotion to tradition and the Charybdis of crass commercial success, roaming across a desolate landscape of insult and invective.
Snide and world-weary, Llewyn may rank as the most unlikeable Coen character since Barton Fink. Yet Oscar Isaac (Drive) – an initially against-the-grain choice – demonstrates that he’s a titan with an angelic voice, and turns a potentially insufferable character into a relatable, unmistakably human presence, with a reminder that humility and genius rarely make for comfortable bedfellows.
The periphery players sound like caricatures – Carey Mulligan (Drive, Shame) is a snotty, forthright vixen; Garrett Hedlund (Friday Night Lights) is a taciturn chauffeur; F. Murray Abraham (Amadeus) is a demoralizing gatekeeper – but they are imbued with texture and virtuosity due to the superlative writing and acting. John Goodman, in his sixth collaboration with the Coens, latches onto another indelible part as the snarky Roland Turner.
Musicals rarely capture my heart and imagination. Even the ones I’ve embraced over the past 15 years – Dancer in the Dark, Once, Sweeney Todd – are far from the mainstream. But under T Bone Burnett’s supervision, the score is amazing. The anti-Space Race novelty tune “Please Mr. Kennedy,” complemented by Adam Driver’s backing vocals and sound effects, is unforgettably hilarious, and it only gets better from there: both the opener “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” and the duet “500 Miles” are manifestly lovely. Perhaps the best of the slew is Isaac’s “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” popularized by folk singer Dave Van Ronk, the loose inspiration for Llewyn Davis.
Using The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as a visual touchstone, Inside Llewyn Davis is shot in wintry grays with no warming ambers. In a rare departure from Coen DP Roger Deakins, who was busy on Bond 24, the cinematography, mounted by Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie), could be described as Ektachrome desaturated colour, simulating the slushy New York of the famous 1963 album.
Like just a few other Coen movies, Inside Llewyn Davis belongs to the category David Lynch has labelled as “movies that make you dream.” Both deceptively simple – a folk musician bounces from episode to episode, and doesn’t learn much – and fiendishly complex – the circular structure, the tangential trip to Chicago, the layered nature of each relationship, this is the Coens at their most novelistic, with a richness and obliqueness that can leave a first-time viewer flailing, but only grows in stature the more you think about it.
With Inside Llewyn Davis, the sibling auteurs hone a black valentine to both its hero and his milieu. It is laced with their revitalizing absurdist humour, the brunt of it aimed at the conceits and depredations of the music business. While not as solemn as A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis bears a significant resemblance to its narrative nihilism. With this study of a man spiraling into the forgotten, they have made an acerbic bookend to that near-masterpiece, and a companion piece to Barton Fink. It may not be their funniest, prettiest, or strongest film, but it is uniquely rewarding.
Innocent, bleak, singular, and deeply felt, with an impeccable sense of period and an acidulous aftertaste, Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie about the fear of failure and mediocrity that, as if a cunning Coen-esque joke, is a tumultuous, stupefying success. If it is ultimately my sixth favourite Coen oddball comic-tragedy – behind No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Miller’s Crossing, and its two precursors above – damn, that’s pretty great company.