At this point it may be hard for the Coen brothers to do any wrong, and they reinforce that notion with Inside Llewyn Davis, which offers a sometimes novelistic look at an aspiring singer-songwriter ambling through the early 60s Greenwich Village folk music scene. This is territory the Coens are comfortable with—characters living unnoticed but not really on the fringe, with a lifestyle and landscape distinctly their own.
Aside from the typical strengths—the colorful supporting performances, the quirky turns of plot that offer subtle revelations about a character, the strong dialogue—Oscar Isaac is the engine behind the film. He embodies Davis as a man who can so successfully act the part of the damaged, down and out folk singer that he may actually be afraid of testing himself with success. With no place of his own, he makes the rounds staying with friends and acquaintances (all he has to do is ask “got a couch?” of a fellow musician he's just met, and they both understand each other). He's created a persona that allows him (and others) to excuse his unreliable, non-committal ways and to brush off his shameless freeloading as harmless, semi-charming mooching. In one scene, after discovering he's gotten his friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) pregnant and needs money for an abortion, he asks her boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake, who I wish was in a few more scenes) for a loan—the boyfriend doesn't know what it's for, just that Llewyn needs it and that “he can't tell Jean.”
Yet we don't dislike Llewyn, because he seems to accept his helplessness and even to have embraced it. A character tells him at one point that he hasn't broken through with his musical career because he wants to fail, and while that doesn't seem quite right, we do get the impression that Llewyn is comfortable being stuck in the same old loop because it absolves him of real responsibilities. Following an audition where he is told he can't succeed as a solo act, but is offered the chance to work as part of a trio, he refuses—it's perhaps the most confident we see him throughout the whole movie. He'd rather fail completely than achieve part of his dream through compromise, because then he can maintain his position as someone who just needs a little help and patience until he makes it.
The movie proceeds oftentimes like a novel, with characters weaving in and out of the story and little of a linear plot to speak of. One of the best sequences involves Llewyn splitting gas money on a trip to Chicago with a jazz musician and his driver (played by John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund, respectively). These scenes veer into slightly more surreal, dreamlike territory, and they find an interesting and quietly haunting way to suggest that Llewyn is content just drifting through his own life because, as with his music career, he's afraid of the alternatives that making real choices may pose.
Underscoring and complicating all of this is the fact that Llewyn Davis is actually a talented musician. His songs have a stoic acceptance of defeat that camouflages a more-than-willing penchant for surrender, and perhaps it's this coping mechanism that Llewyn is afraid to lose should he actually find success. In the final scenes, he delivers a performance that suggests he may have evolved ever-so-slightly enough to take that chance, and then a bitter but Coen-ly hilarious twist of fate reveals to us (but not Davis) that bad timing and poor luck have rendered this growth useless.
The best part about all of this—and the thing that above all else establishes Inside Llewyn Davis as a Coen brothers film, complete with their pitch-perfect understanding of tone and humor—is that the movie never once feels sorry for its titular character. He inhabits a space he's cut out for himself somewhere between happiness and genuine despair, and he's comfortable there.
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Screenplay written by Joel and Ethan Coen.
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and John Goodman.