Co-directors Joel and Ethan Coen’s evocative and highly effective new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, opens with the camera cropped tight on the face of its main character, a folk singer (Llewyn Davis) who is covering the traditional folk ballad, “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” The camera eventually pans out, spinning through a darkened, smoke-filled club in Greenwich Village in the early-1960s and establishing the setting of this man’s world. But for the rest of the film we are never really detached from Llewyn (Oscar Isaac).
Llewyn is a folk singer in the soon-to-explode New York folk scene, only he’s been born just a couple of years too soon. Around him, friends and colleges begin to find moderate success or at least financial or emotional stability. Llewyn, however, is a perpetual drifter, bumming spots on couches of ex-girlfriends and uptown aficionados. He is at that moment when the romance of being a starving artist tarnishes and fatigue sets in. Llweyn is peddling an art form with no apparent future, and yet it is all he can bring himself to do. His situation is summarized in an odd scene early on when he is invited out behind the music club only to get socked in the face by an unidentified man.
As we get to know Llweyn, we realize a lot of people would like a piece of him. He has broken hearts, impregnated girls, bummed money for abortions, and generally slip-sided his way through life. His record label, which took him on as a solo artist after the other half of his semi-successful folk duo passed away, does nothing to promote his career. And just when life couldn’t get more down in the dumps, Llewyn mistakenly lets the cat out of an uptown apartment where he has been flopping. It’s a minor blunder that turns into an existential emergency, and the search for the cat turns the animal into the symbolic stand-in for the stability, responsibility, and love Llweyn can never seem to accept for himself.
Like many of the Coen brothers’ movies, Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t fit snuggly with an established style, though there are flashes of classic Coen motifs: Odyssean overtones; mysterious, gothic characters (featuring John Goodman, of course); and plenty of humor sputtering up in the most unexpected moments. Llewyn shares similarities with the pitiful, impotent hero of Fargo; the hopeless, afflicted author in Barton Fink; the wandering Everett McGill in Oh Brother Where Art Thou. But he is also something new, a sensitively rendered soul whose affliction is personal alienation writ grand, whose encounters with family, his art, his world, his lovers is forever unconsummated. It leaves him damned to endless wandering.
Like Llewyn, the film itself wanders and never quite goes anywhere. The plot kicks around, finding various scenes, half-starts, false starts, and wrong paths. Remarkably, though, this narrative style doesn’t detract from the film’s focus. Its exquisitely photographed style, an insistent and unrelenting sense of tone, and the many interludes of music make for a film that is impeccably crafted, melodiously paced, and relentlessly engrossing. What the Coens have managed to do is create a piece of cinema that functions like a folk song; it creates its own rules, and operates according to the parameters of its own lyric world. What we find in that place is the well-rendered stuff of life, stark and undeniable.