Joel and Ethan Coen are filmmakers who are seemingly without effort, able to combine the tragic and hilarious, the absurd and mundane into their signature heightened comedic aestheticism many cinephiles have become accustomed to from them. Their latest, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a satisfying entry into their filmography, a film about giving all your love to your art, only to have none of it returned.
The plot revolves around a talented and struggling young folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village who tries to navigate through a defeating set of days that pit the entire universe against him.
Oscar Isaac shines as the title character. Playing supporting roles in solid turns for the past few years, he finally gets the opportunity to lead, and he does so with terrific nuance. While he retains an entertaining apathetic attitude to those around him throughout the film, the screenplay subtly allows a few scenes where the turmoil gets to him, and Isaac convincingly lets loose his character’s frustration. His performance is bolstered by scene-stealing supporting turns from an angry Carey Mulligan, a blues junkie John Goodman, a boyish Justin Timberlake, a hilarious pseudo-cowboy Adam Driver and a cold F. Murray Abraham.
One aspect that keeps the movie from ever getting too moronic in it’s comedic setups is the cinematography from the masterful Bruno Delbonnel. He lights the film in a cold, indifferent bleakness, accenting the state of Llewyn’s life. He’s in a transitional period, but can’t figure out what he’s supposed to transition into since his musical partner died. Is it a by-default solo act? A backup vocalist in more commercial ventures? Back to the merchant marines? None of these possibilities seem to line up for our protagonist in a familiar joyous sadism the Coen brothers have employed before on their characters. This movie does provide some redemptive moments for Llewyn, but this is still perhaps the most uplifting the Coen brothers are ever going to get.
At one point in the film, Llewyn spends a small solitary moment in a bathroom stall, where he reflects on the rhetorical scribbles written above the toilet paper. It reads “What are you doing?” It’s in that moment he realizes he tragically has no clue. But he’s going to keep continuing to try to figure that out regardless of the punches and beatdowns – both literal and metaphorical – life throws at him.