Directors Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the most celebrated filmmakers working today. Their films, even those that fail to reach the lofty standards some have set for them, manage to be insightful, poignant and sometimes even frightening. However, their films have also been more adored by critics and film connoisseurs than the everyday filmgoer.
Their latest, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is perhaps their most accessible film to date. Gone are the religious complexities of “A Serious Man” or the isolating dark humor of “Fargo” and “Burn After Reading.” Instead, it’s a (mostly) straight forward drama about a struggling man trying to live day by day. It’s not their best-in fact, it hardly even feels like a Coen brothers movie at all-but its majestic musical numbers and fantastic performances elevate this well above the humdrum lesser filmmakers churn out.
Oscar Isaac, in a star making role plays the titular role of Llewyn Davis. He’s a struggling musician whose life is in the gutter. No matter what he does, seemingly everything goes wrong. After a performance one night, he’s assaulted in the alley behind the club, he’s currently homeless and living off the generosity of those closest to him who, despite their aggravation, give him a place to crash and a winter coat to wear, his solo career isn’t taking off and he even finds himself in the possession of an unwanted cat after it bolts out of one of the apartments he had been staying in. To top it all off, one of his friends and romantic flings, Jean, played by Carey Mulligan, is pregnant and it might be his.
Before any of the above becomes known to the viewer, the film encapsulates it all, opening with a melancholy song about the troubles of one’s life. The folky twang of the strings, the subtle quietness of the vocals and the profundity of the lyrics set the stage perfectly for a movie that is going to be all of those things at once. A fan of folk music or not, it’s hard not to find yourself sucked in while listening to this beautiful, but heartbreaking song. Though not a musical in the traditional sense, the film is filled with similar moments like these, all coming at a time in the story that builds character, when Llewyn needs a release, something to take his mind off his troubles.
These songs are complimented wonderfully by Oscar Isaac, a typical “that guy” of cinema, one whose face is known, but the name eludes. He is magnificent here, smartly downplaying the extravagance of many musical performers and instead opting to let the pain show through. His habit of closing his eyes while performing shows not a sign of smugness, but one of passion and emotional agony. Llewyn Davis is a person who wears his emotions very close to his chest. He doesn’t let them show while out doing his day-to-day business; it’s in the quiet musical moments that they become apparent and Isaac plays it damn near perfectly in what is sure to be an underappreciated performance.
Throughout Llewyn’s journey, characters pop up and disappear as if they were never there, hardly making a blip on the overall picture’s radar. This gives the film an uneven structure, but it’s one that fits its themes, working to show the uncertainty of this man’s unhappy life. When these moments end, most are never brought up again and any type of resolution is left on the table, but it’s okay because the character himself has no resolution in sight.
However, the gravity of certain stories outweighs the unobtrusiveness of others, like the aforementioned pregnancy, and it’s a shame they aren’t explored in more detail. Later in the film, Llewyn even finds out he actually has a kid with a former lover, but the impact this has on his emotional state or his life in general is left frustratingly vague. Neither this nor Jean’s pregnancy have the narrative impact they should. While they should make Llewyn’s life even more complex and uncertain, they’re instead just kind of there.
The film also ends on a somewhat unsatisfying note, when you finally realize that nothing is going to be resolved, but perhaps that’s the point. This isn’t a “happy ending” type of Hollywood film, nor is it one of crushing sadness. It doesn’t leave you with hope or fear or any other feeling because Llewyn’s life has become one of apathy and the apathetic don’t bother with such feelings.
The Coen brothers have really done something interesting here. They’ve created a movie that is missing their trademark style-the style that allowed them to create jokes via the simple movement of a camera like when it passed over a corpse like a speed bump in their 1984 debut, “Blood Simple”-but they haven’t lost their touch. Their abilities are downplayed and they let the performers onscreen shine. So many directors want top billing, to practically scream that they were behind it all, but there’s a refreshing lack of vanity in their approach. This isn’t going to go down as one of their best, but “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a treat all the same.