If a filmmaker – or in this case, filmmakers – can be underrated and overlooked despite winning multiple Academy Awards and producing fifteen, mostly critically acclaimed films over four decades, then Joel and Ethan Coen qualify. It’s not that their films don’t receive critical praise or commercial validation, but rather that critics and serious film lovers (a/k/a cineastes) can often take the Coen Brothers for granted. Their track record contains at most three or four missteps and even those missteps or misfires have much to offer cineastes, critics, and academics. Their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, an early ‘60s drama set during the waning days of the folk scene, is no different: Its relative greatness – relative to other 2013 releases, that is – will be respectfully acknowledged by film critics and arthouse audiences, but few will take the time and make the effort to really plumb Inside Llewyn Davis’ thematic depths ad complexities, in no small part due to the title character, a narcissistic, egotistical, ultimately self-destructive folk musician and charter member of the Church of Artistic Integrity.
When we first meet Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), he’s singing “Hang Me, Hang Me (I’ve Been All Around This World”), a song he describes as never new, never old, and thus the very definition of a folk song, at the Gaslight Cafe in Greenwich Village. It’s a performance tinged with bitterness and despair, if not regret or even melancholy, the result of years of failure for Davis, a onetime member of a semi-successful folk duo who’s solo career has gone exactly nowhere (one album, no sales). A stubborn, intractable idealist, Davis seems to live and breathe folk music (he’s rarely more than a few feet away from his guitar, but he’s a musician stuck in the past with no way forward except changing with the times, something Davis repeatedly resists due to his view of the musician as an artist first (and last). Anything else would be compromise, compromise that entails surrendering to commercialism at the expense of his artistic integrity. For Davis, only failure, failure of the complete and abject kind, follows him wherever he goes and whatever he does.
Davis’ artistic purity, however, doesn’t preclude him from accepting handouts. Without an apartment, Davis relies on the kindness of (near) strangers, an Upper Manhattan bourgeois couple, Mitch (Ethan Phillips) and Lillian Gorfein (Robin Bartlett), or a folk duo/couple, Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake), who let Davis sleep on their couch. Jean shares a complicated history with Davis. A brief fling has left Jean pregnant – possibly with Davis’ child – and bitter from regret and guilt. Jean sees Davis as self-involved and self-absorbed, traits that make him a bad romantic partner and an even worse (potential) father. With dwindling options, Davis wanders around a wintry Manhattan minus an overcoat, looking for new couches to sleep on, royalty checks to collect and/or cash, and an open mike at a Greenwich Village café. With an emphasis on incident and detail over plot or story typical of the Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis sends the title character to an afternoon session gig with Jim and another musician, where a shortsighted and desperate Davis takes cash upfront over potential royalties, then segues into a road-trip with a stoner Beatnik. Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), and a drug-addicted, semi-disabled jazz musician, Roland Turner (John Goodman), to the Midwest for an unproductive meet-and-greet with a Chicago promoter, then back to Manhattan.
Choices reveal character. For Davis, every decision or non-decision reveals character. What we learn about Davis can’t be described as positive, a function of Davis’ tragic, ultimately fatal flaw: His steadfast, stubborn refusal to change with the times or to adjust his expectations about himself or others. With the exception of a cat Davis temporarily, inadvertently adopts, there’s little else to indicate Davis’ cares about anyone except himself. His missteps and mistakes flow naturally from this flaw, making him, not as some critics might suggest, yet another unsympathetic character in the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre, a symptom (some have argued) of their misanthropy. But those critics misunderstand the Coen Brothers. They tend to prefer working in a tragic or tragicomic register – a nod back to their noir roots, but also to Classical Greek drama – singling out and focusing on fatally flawed characters, characters that generally can’t be described as likeable or even relatable (or they can be, but that would require critics and audience members to recognize themselves in those characters).
As always where the Coen Brothers are concerned, an incredibly talented cast helps to elevate already compelling material, including frequent collaborator and scene-stealer extraordinaire John Goodman, Carey Mulligan as Davis’ principal critic and frequent tormentor, pitch-perfect supporting turns, and Oscar Isaac, giving a layered, nuanced performance as a deeply flawed character seemingly incapable of empathy or personal change. A self-trained musician, Isaac sings and plays guitar on several tracks, adding to the verisimilitude of a long-gone, almost forgotten era in American music. And with another semi-frequent collaborator, T-Bone Burnett, as the music supervisor, and French cinematographer and Bruno Delbonnel (Across the Universe, Infamous, A Very Long Engagement, Amélie), stepping in for longtime collaborator Roger Deakins, on hand to provide Inside Llewyn Davis with authentic folk songs and painterly compositions respectively, the result – unsurprising to anyone even vaguely familiar with the Coen Brothers – is another near masterpiece.