The Coen Brothers | 1hr 45min
Like a folk ballad that keeps returning to the same chorus over and over, Llewyn Davis’ life moves in circles, always sending him back to the dim, smoky Gaslight Café in New York City’s Greenwich Village to play the same familiar set. The spotlight that casts him in a pale grey wash also cuts out silhouettes of the audience and industrial brick arches, framing him as he plucks and sings a melancholy tune. “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” he charmingly quips after he strikes the final chord three minutes into the film, but by this point Oscar Isaac has already won us over with just his singing. After his performance, Llewyn encounters a shady man wearing a low hanging hat in the alley outside, and soon gets beaten up for some incident that occurred the previous night.
By the end of Inside Llewyn Davis, we will recognise these events as part of a Groundhog Day rotation that pins our hapless protagonist down in a perpetual cycle of misfortune. This is not some supernatural time loop though, but a trap of Llewyn’s own making, propelled by the same bitterness and self-loathing that leads him to lash out at others. This outward anger is not one we see until a little deeper into the film though. For a long time, the only hints that he might have an obnoxious spiteful side come from the way we see others treat him. The only people he gets along with tend to be abundantly generous and tolerant, while those like Jean, his friend’s girlfriend, hold nothing for him but derisive contempt.
This masterful character study from the Coen Brothers may very well be their greatest to date, and with a desaturated colour palette that follows Llewyn between American cities hoping to find success, it proves to be one of their most impressive visual accomplishments as well. The frigid New York winter that lines sidewalks with snow and hangs a chilly fog in the air also appears to seep into the Coens’ interiors, where rundown apartment complexes and steel train carriages enclose Llewyn within rigid, oppressive structures. One particular hallway is even framed to look like a dead-end in the way it narrows to a point, and every single time we return to this location Llewyn is shot walking away into its apex where his path terminates.
Rarely has a Coen Brothers film been as bleakly beautiful as this, and it is no coincidence that Bruno Delbonnel is the cinematographer here either, bringing his flair for stylised pictorial textures to scenes of crushing destitution and melancholy. At the same time, there always remains that touch of darkly comedic wit that the Coens wield with such sophistication over, offering Llewyn some sort of hopeful resolve before knocking him down again. It comes with an especially sharp jab when he is invited by a friend to help with a studio recording, only to discover that they are recording a cheap novelty song with no artistic integrity, and again later on the road to Chicago when his driver is arrested for suspected intoxication, suddenly leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Isaac wears the weight of Llewyn’s poverty and hardship with a beaten down acceptance, so much so that it has almost become part of himself, giving in to despair the moment it arises. There is no version of this character that one could imagine being better off – this is the way he has always been and will continue to be beyond the bookends of the film. Still, the cutting comments hurled his way hurt no less, cutting down any remaining shred of hope. When F. Murray Abraham’s music producer, Bud Grossman, tells him “I don’t see a lot of money here” after a gorgeous, soulful rendition of ‘The Death of Queen Jane’, it might as well be a death sentence to his musical ambitions.
Then again, maybe that hope was lost long ago along when his best friend and musical collaborator, Mike, died of suicide. In the returning motif of ‘Fare Thee Well’, the Coens give this tragic backstory its own poignant theme, and the hole that has been left in Llewyn’s life feels even deeper when we discover that there is a missing harmony in the song that Mike once filled in. With him gone, Llewyn resists any suggestion of playing with others as a permanent act, abruptly chiding one friend who tries to fill in Mike’s harmony and later rejecting an offer of joining a trio. The uninformed suggestion from Bud that Llewyn “Get back together” with his partner makes every other criticism feel all the more damning. If Mike was his only path to success, then he is effectively out of options.
Without any one person to ground him to the world, perhaps then we can look to the tabby cat he is tasked with caring for after accidentally locking it out of its owner’s apartment. With its name remaining largely unknown throughout the film and its habit of running away, it too becomes a slippery figure much like Llewyn, rejecting stability in favour of an untethered life that simply puts a burden on others. There is a distinct irony that he is the one who must deal with the consequences of that behaviour for once, but even with that new perspective there is little hope that he will change much. Just as the same chorus will always be around the corner, the Gaslight Café will always be at the end of the road, and Llewyn will always drunkenly self-sabotage his own friendships. The Coen Brothers more than anyone recognise the grim humour that lies in a stubbornly nomadic character like this, and it is in its quiet tragedy that Inside Llewyn Davis becomes one of their most movingly tactile cinematic portraits of adversity.
Inside Llewyn Davis is currently streaming on Stan, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.