The moment we really get inside Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) occurs late in the film when he visits his father in a nursing home. The old man, obviously suffering from Alzheimer’s, is silent and has a stern, almost scornful expression permanently etched into his haggard face. To lighten the mood, Llewyn decides to sing a song Dad once liked. The song, as with all of Llewyn’s work, is beautiful and haunted. And as it appears the old man is ready to give our protagonist some catharsis…he craps his pants.
Not only is this evidence of the Coen brothers’ career long dedication to resisting obvious sentiment, spreading a layer of cynicism over their narrative, it is also evidence of their remarkable capacity as storytellers for compassion. They may be cynics, but they do not treat their characters cynically. Inside Lleywn Davis is a fantastic character study about a man dealing with loss, a dire need for connection, and a self-destructive streak that makes him his own worst enemy. No matter how much other characters may seem to revile him – and they do – none hate Llewyn as much as Llewyn hates Llewyn. In this, the Coens uncover a universal truth that is as much a key to understanding Llewyn’s music as it is to understanding why he is unsuccessful.
While the performances in this film are outstanding, including great character work from John Goodman, Carey Mulligan, Max Casella, and of course Oscar Isaac, the look of Inside Llewyn Davis is equally stunning. Every shot is muted, looking like a washed out photograph from a bygone era. Images of Llewyn walking the streets of Greenwich Village look like replicas of Dylan’s Freewheelin’ album cover. There is a definite lack of nostalgia, though, as there was in Dylan’s best work – like Dylan’s, the Coens, use the forms of the past to take an unflinching look at the human condition in the present. Without the saccharine aftertaste of nostalgia, the Coens have created an original character for whom sadness and failure are written into his DNA, a sign of the times for artists in this current generation.
Inside Llewyn Davis is not splashy, not immediately funny, nor immediately accessible. Like its title character, it is irascible, at times a bit off putting, and quite insular. But as you give yourself over to its rhythm and melody, it does win you over, and proves to be one of the Coen Brothers finest works to date.