Perhaps one of the best in a series of (mostly) very good efforts, Inside Llewyn Davis marks the newest film from the directorial team of the Coen brothers. This is a smart, funny, and yet not terribly upbeat movie that follows approximately a week in the life of its lead character, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). That’s it. Or, that’s about all that it has to offer from a narrative perspective. When you dig deeper you find an even better movie filled with so many small touches that you won’t see many of them on the first viewing.
Llewyn Davis is a folk singer who perhaps invented couch surfing. He spends each night sleeping at a different friend’s house. He’s not a success, is what I’m saying. It’s not even that Llewyn is a bad singer; the film takes place in 1961, which was before Bob Dylan burst out and really popularized folk music. Llewyn has a record out that isn’t selling, and he’s spending his days and nights hoping to find work. He’s stuck in a rut, and through circumstances partially out of his control is going to go on a journey which may or may not free him.
It all starts with a cat. At one of the houses Llewyn spends the night, there is a cute cat (whose name is a spoiler, kind of, if you think about it). As Llewyn leaves, the cat gets out. He has to chase it. This kick-starts a series of events which leads Llewyn down paths he otherwise would not have taken. And, yes, there is a cat along for much of the journey, which just adds to the movie. Movies don’t get worse with the inclusion of a cat; in fact, it’s almost always the opposite which occurs.
The film is interested in Llewyn as a character, his journey, and his interactions with the people he encounters. There is Jean (Carey Mulligan), who at one point slept with Llewyn and now needs an abortion; Jim (Justin Timberlake), who is Jean’s beau and Llewyn’s friend; Roland and Johnny (John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund), with whom Llewyn takes a road trip to Chicago, as well as several other analogous-to-real-life-people characters — references you’ll likely only get if you know your (folk) music history.
If you like offbeat and quirky humor — similar to that found in other movies by the Coen brothers — then you will laugh quite often during Inside Llewyn Davis. There are lots of comedic lines, a couple of funny characters, and the antics of the cat, all of which keep the film humorous. This is at odds with the film’s melancholic tone. For the most part, Llewyn is in a cycle from which he cannot escape. Nothing ever seems to go right for him; this isn’t a Hollywood rags-to-riches story.
It does, perhaps, offer hope at the end, although even that comes with a bit of reservation. It’s really tough to discuss this without spoiling, but suffice to say that any happiness you read into the finale — a select couple of things change and you get the sense that, just maybe, there might be hope for Llewyn. But, assuming you get a reference — that shouldn’t be too obscure for most people — you’ll realize that it’s not as upbeat as it might initially appear.
In fact, a lot of Inside Llewyn Davis works similarly to this. If you think about it harder and contemplate what it means or represents, the surface events and plot will reveal a deeper meaning. You might first ask yourself what the purpose of the John Goodman character is. Think on it, and it might come to you. The cat also isn’t just a plot device or MacGuffin; it has a symbolic purpose as well as a practical one: it’s cute as a button and it winds up getting a great deal of laughs.
All of that kind of talk deserves significant discussion and multiple watches of the movie. From a single watch, you’ll catch some stuff and miss others. If you know your folk music history, you’ll get more out of it than if you don’t, although anyone can enjoy it. Many full-length songs are contained in the film, too — almost enough to call it a musical — and they help to further set the mood and scene, which is something the Coen brothers do very well. While watching this film, you feel like you’re back in 1961.
Oscar Isaac will get many accolades for his leading role in this film. So much of the film relies on him. His signing has to be good enough for us to believe that Llewyn has a chance of success, and he has to also be charming and charismatic even when the character is going through an incredibly tough time. Isaac pulls it off, and becomes a leading man in the process. Everyone else, even the second-billed actor (Carey Mulligan), is given a very supporting role; if anyone else has more than fifteen minutes of screen time, I’d be surprised.
Inside Llewyn Davis is short of a masterpiece but it’s one of the better films to come from the Coen brothers, and that’s saying a lot given their filmography. It’s well-acted, funny, and has a seemingly simple plot which allows for a great deal of symbolism and important smaller details. Oh, and it also has a really cute cat, whose importance to the film is more than just being cute or a MacGuffin. It’s a film you think on and then desire to see more than once. It’s that good.