Leave it to the Coen Brothers to make a movie set in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early sixties that for once doesn’t come off like a rehashed Baby Boomer lecture about how Bob Dylan changed the world with his hippie skit-scat poems (not that Bob Dylan’s weren’t especially good skit-scat poems…). Turns out, those Coen Brothers, they’re pretty good. Like its protagonist’s best folk songs, Inside Llewyn Davis evokes that heart-tugging cocktail of fear, guilt, and melancholy, that terrifying freedom of not knowing what you’re supposed to be doing with your life. Offering no easy answers or simple lessons, they’ve encapsulated (poetically, of course) everything at once romantic and beautiful and soul-crushing and shitty about pursuing life as an artist. It hurts so good.
Oscar Isaac plays the Llewyn Davis of the title, a folk singer couch surfing his way around Greenwich Village getting everyone pregnant. Uptown, he stays with an eccentric and comically well-meaning Columbia professor and his wife, who are always hosting a revolving cast of visiting weirdos at their intellectual dinner parties (I’ve been to those awkward parties in those antiseptic apartments, squeals of familiarity!). Downtown, he crashes with his less friendly but more hip Greenwich Village folk singer friends, a sort of one-note as usual Carey Mulligan and her gee whiz sweater guy fiancee Justin Timberlake.
Llewyn Davis doesn’t sing in the trailers, which left me wondering if the movie was some gimmick about writer’s block, or never getting a chance. It’s not. Llewyn sings, and it’s enchanting every time. Part of the beauty of Inside Llewyn Davis is that you get lost in the songs along with the protagonist. Inside the world of the movie, it feels like everyone in the room with Llewyn must be lost in those songs with him. But when he gets done, no one acknowledges it. No one says, “Great job, that was beautiful,” or “Man, you can really sing.” Sometimes it feels like the world gets it, and sometimes it feels like they don’t. That’s the constant, stomach-churning doubt of trying to dedicate your life to such a subjective pursuit. I think I’m good! Do I need validation from these people?
Stepping outside the world of the movie for a second, man, can Oscar Isaac ever sing. I’ll never again confuse him with Adam Goldberg or Jake Johnson or David Krumholtz or any other shaggy-headed Jewy-looking guy with a beard like I did before this movie (for the record, Oscar Isaac Hernandez is actually Cuban and Guatemalan, perhaps the first actor in showbiz history to change his name to something Jewish-sounding). His is the kind of performance that, like Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds, is sure to attract awards attention because it involves an obvious gimmick. Waltz’s trick was performing in three languages. Isaac’s is playing guitar for real, and singing like a dandruffy angel. But, while it’s not pure acting, which is much harder for awards voters to pinpoint and define, the part of Isaac’s performance that is acting is so solid that it allows you to enjoy the parts where he goes above and beyond, playing and singing the film’s songs live on camera.
But these are things you learn about the movie, not reasons to like the movie. Llewyn Davis‘s appeal doesn’t rest on a parlor trick like live singing. In fact, one of the things that’s so compelling about it is that it eschews familiar twists and patterns at almost every turn. The cat, for instance. I mean, a folk singer carrying a cat around New York City, how perfect a gimmick is that?
I’d forgive that it’s a gimmick because it’s a cat. And the Coens would surely be forgiven. But while the cat factors into three or four scenes, which range from sad to cute to shriekingly hilarious, it’s far from what you’d call a running gag. It fades in and out of the story in a way so unpredictable that it borders on mythic. Sometimes Coen characters you meet in the beginning of the story become a factor later, and sometimes they just wander off into the woods, never to be seen again, like the Russian guy in the Pine Barrens episode of The Sopranos. What does it mean? What does it represent? There’s never a reductive answer (and if you try to come up with one I will punch you), and the cat’s more like the phrase in a song. The film is like a song, with characters and moments that appear and reappear in a way that’s unpredictable, but harmonious, in a way that just feels right. (Do NOT call it lyrical. Everyone knows “lyrical” is just film critic for “dull.”)
Llewyn Davis inhabits this world that’s fulfilling only in these fleeting moments, where freedom and uncertainty and beauty and heartbreak are all wrapped up with one another. When Llewyn sings, you get the sense that it’s strong and powerful and important and it means something. When other characters sing, it feels silly and shallow and uninspired (not to mention frequently hilarious), even when the diegetic audience seems to be eating it up. Incredibly, you sense this just through framing and Llewyn’s facial expressions, it’s never something acknowledged out loud. Through Llewyn, you feel that sense of confusion and jealousy and contempt that comes from being out of step with what the market seems to reward. Llewyn’s only reward for his life of poverty and constant humiliation are the songs themselves, which is what makes them so sad and anthemic at the same time.