Inside Llewyn Davis will not cause anyone any mental distress. It won’t blow anyone away or garner a standing ovation in the theater. It’s just not that kind of movie. However, its characters, themes and moods will silently creep into your everyday life. Like the freeloading titular character, this bitter and melancholy tale will linger far longer than you’ll want it to.
The movie, the latest from cinema deities Joel and Ethan Coen, is the somber tale of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Issac), a folk singer in Greenwich Village during the 1960s folk movement. The film follows Llewyn’s often aimless journey around the United States as he searches for any purpose to his life. It isn’t a film with the tightest of plots — or any plot at all — aside from a threadbare “storyline” about a lost cat.
This is not a feel-good movie. In fact, it’s unusually oppressing. The film is shot hyper-stylistically, and most settings and characters are void of vivacity. The characters are pale caricatures of what could possibly be real people. Their clothes are bland and reek of ennui. The entire film seems to take place in some strange, alternate dimension devoid of color, enthusiasm and life. Llewyn’s daily trudge has a uniquely depressing quality — not overwhelming, but certainly omnipresent — and the characters slog through their lives. Even supposed liberations, such as music, become the subject of semi-violent, angry outbursts.
But as dreary as the cinematography is, the dialogue is conversely lively, pointed and witty. This is due to the numerous eccentric subplots in the film, which include abortion, animal care and (perhaps the most enjoyable) a road trip with an aging jazz musician, hysterically played by Coen brothers regular John Goodman, who deserved far more screen time.
Regardless, each character’s dialogue is given a distinctly individual polish. Llewyn’s sarcastic and dry lines are so bitingly different from the bursting, angry lines of, say, Llewyn’s folk comrade, Jean Berkey, played by a haunting Carey Mulligan in a startlingly darker character than her recent role as Daisy in The Great Gatsby.
But the dialogue, as masterfully written as it is, is given life by a parade of big name actors, TV stars and hit singers. John Goodman and Carey Mulligan deliver equally hilarious and heartbreaking performances, respectively, while Girls star Adam Driver and pop-culture idol Justin Timberlake round out the cast with funny, albeit forgettable, roles. However, the real winner is Oscar Isaac, who portrays Llewyn, a character with zero grace, zero charisma, and infinite expectations. It is heartbreaking enough watching Isaac’s character hatefully traverse his world, but it is worse still to watch him constantly expect good fortune, especially when he repeatedly forsakes a clearly attainable redemption.
Llewyn is rarely relatable. In fact, he’s awful. He’s not an outwardly horrible person, but he is an uncaring, inconsiderate slob. Normally, it would be a weakness for a film to have a main character that isn’t at all relatable — however, the blatantly pointless Inside Llewyn Davis forces you to project your feelings about Llewyn onto the situations at hand, and it is almost satisfying to watch him regularly get the blunt end of karma.
An inherent strength of the Coen brothers is finding interesting ways to psychologically and physically mess with their characters. But where this forges a humanness in older films, such as Fargo, it is instead one of the most consistent sources of comedy herein. It’s fun to watch Llewyn reap the rewards of his contempt and disassociation. You have no choice but to look at his misfortunes through a different lens once you get to know him as a character. And though Llewyn is clearly conflicted — even pitiable — he’s still a bastard.
Inside Llewyn Davis is not as much a film about the eponymous character as it is a look at his life’s awful circumstances. Llewyn is never redeemed, nor does the plot ever really go anywhere. In fact, it doesn’t even really exist.
However, Inside Llewyn Davis is an offbeat, droll look at an awful person, his awful life and the strange, interesting and buffoonish people that populate his world. Though the movie is often darkly comic, and darker still in cinematography, there is a simple appeal in watching a man get what he deserves. If you can look past the inherent gloom, you will find a hauntingly funny film that you’ll unwittingly, yet constantly, recall in your life.