If there is a dominant image of the folk-singer title character in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s his ongoing attempts to juggle a guitar case and a cat, whether traveling on the subway, in a car, or just by trudging through the kind of New York winter Simon and Garfunkel sang about. The first cat he carries belongs to his Columbia University professor friends, the Gorfeins; early in the film, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) wakes up in their apartment, and fails to stop the cat from bolting out as the door shuts, locked, behind him. The second cat, well, just say that it looks a lot like the first one.
The guitar case and cat function as constant reminders that Llewyn doesn’t really have a place to leave his stuff. He bounces from couch to couch, most often crashing, as far as we can see, with the Gorfeins or at the downtown apartment of Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), a folk-singing couple onstage and off. These messy crashes may have worn through his friends’ patience, at least as far as Jean is concerned; in their first three scenes together, once Jim is out of sight, she unleashes profane bursts of “vitriol”, as Llewyn calls it, and not without good reason.
It’s also not an uncommon reaction; the film opens with our hero getting decked in the face. Llewyn used to be part of his own duo and now plays solo, gigging at the Gaslight Cafe, not earning much, scraping together other work like his session playing on Jim’s novelty song “Please Mr. Kennedy” while hoping for a bigger break. In the short time period covered by Inside Llewyn Davis, he doesn’t look like a nice guy: he specializes in unsmiling bumbling coupled with prickly stubbornness. Confronted with a positive-minded, exceedingly polite serviceman and folkie Troy Nelson (Stark Stands), Llewyn hits a wall—he doesn’t know how to engage with such non-tortured earnestness, except to lob insults (“does he have higher function?”) that mostly go ignored.
Yet Isaac’s playing of this uncompromising orneriness becomes oddly endearing, oddly fast. The actor does the kind of high-difficulty work typically associated with impersonating a historical figure or faking a disability, acting and, crucially, singing as a guy with plenty of raw talent but maybe not the levels of charisma, accessibility, or hustle needed to break out. Isaac conveys, with quiet complexity, that some of this may be bad luck and some of it, really, may well be Llewyn’s own damn fault.
The filmmakers have described Inside Llewyn Davis as taking place at a transitional point in the early ‘60s folk music scene. Put simply, the story happens just before Bob Dylan changed everything. The film is not about Llewyn reacting to that change, or even making smaller personal changes for himself. Instead, it follows him for a short time, maybe a week or so—the kind of time he may well look back on when he makes decisions about his career (or when he realizes they’ve been made for him).
It’s the kind of small, sometimes imperceptible arc that some will understandably mistake for no arc at all. But this is a rich, beautiful film that rewards multiple viewings mining both its laughs (the Coens are, as ever, very funny without really telling jokes) and heartbreaks. The Blu-ray release only includes one special feature, but a substantial one: “Inside Inside Llewyn Davis”, a behind-the-scenes walkthrough that begins, as many discussions about the film have, with the Coens discussing their initial inspiration, Dave Van Ronk, before moving on to the story (which isn’t much like Van Ronk’s) and, especially, its music, with rehearsal footage featuring Isaac, Mulligan, Timberlake, soundtrack producer T Bone Burnett, and associate producer Marcus Mumford. Given the amount of coverage afforded to the film’s musical performances, both in a studio and live on-set, it’s too bad that Blu-ray doesn’t include any material from the concert many soundtrack contributors, cast members, and other musicians gave back in the fall.
The on-set footage presents an arresting contrast with the Oscar-nominated cinematography of Coens newcomer Bruno Delbonnel (sitting in for their usual DP, Roger Deakins), with its beautifully desaturated, faded-photo grays and blues (the contrast is especially noticeable because the special feature, while formatted for high-def TVs, looks like internet video upconverted past its frame rate, even when excerpting scenes from the finished film). Many of the Coens’ earlier films featured shots or camera movements that wowed with their crazed audacity; they were friendly with the Sam Raimi of Evil Dead, and it showed. Comparably, Inside Llewyn Davis feels stripped down, but its imagery—like the cat staring out a subway window, or the recurring shots of musicians squeezing down narrow hallways—has a haunting clarity.
As writers, the Coens have long thrived on repetition; their comedies in particular often include bits of dialogue (“Damn! We’re in a tight spot!” “That rug really tied the room together”) that play as if on some cosmic loop. There’s some of that here when, in a hilarious detour, Llewyn shares a Chicago-bound car with Roland Turner (John Goodman), a loudmouthed jazz musician who constantly prefaces his bloviations with a presumptuous “this will interest you.” Beyond the comic touches, though (and Goodman is as funny as he’s ever been in a Coen picture), the whole movie has been fashioned into a loop. Llewyn returns to many locations at least twice, as his life repeats itself, with subtle shifts.
This extends even to the soundtrack. Throughout the film, we hear several different versions of “Fare Thee Well”, including a raw, heartbreaking version performed in full by Isaac, aching with the loss of his partner, who recorded the song with him before their forced split. But it’s another, similar song—Dylan’s “Farewell”—that closes out Inside Llewyn Davis, for reasons that make sad, funny, perfect sense. As good as Llewyn can be with a microphone and a guitar, another farewell gets the last word.