Let me tell you about the life of a film critic in the Midwest. It’s often a wait-and-see game full of extended dead periods that are sometimes punctuated by unexpected floods of movies. The publicity houses aren’t as massive as they are in larger markets, so not every film comes down the pike out here. Oftentimes you send off multiple emails to studio reps, asking for screening information so you can get to a film in time to write a relevant review. When the information is passed along, you have to drive an hour to get to the screening location. Then you drive home and write the review late at night to post it the next morning. Through the frustration, you have to remember the passion that brought you to this racket in the first place. In its way, it sort of resembles the plight of a struggling musician.
For that reason, Inside Llewyn Davis is oddly relatable to anyone whose life is a delicate balance between passion and disappointment. Not that the film is some sort of earthbound verite portrait; to the contrary, the Coen brothers’ latest is as quirky and skewed in its POV as you might expect, with mannered caricatures and outsized situations peppering the narrative at every turn. But in its soul, this is a tale of two very simple elements: The Music and The Struggle. Anyone with even a tangential relationship to the Arts understands that those two words are quite often synonymous.
The Coens open the film with a shot of a microphone — close-up, still, alone. Its solitude is beautiful but empty, needing a voice to project into the atmosphere. When the camera slowly pans up to reveal Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), the relationship is clear. The voice needs the tool as much as the tool needs the voice. This is Llewyn’s only outlet, the only way he can express his turmoil without being shouted down — and he gets shouted down a lot. This gorgeous, melancholy opening performance is lit with an almost ethereal aura by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, suggesting the spotlight is powerful, but also isolating. The man and his microphone are alone, cradled in light, fueled by passion and need.
This otherworldly glow hovers over the entire film, elevating the world ever-so-slightly above the normal. The Coens are famous for their often overt quirkiness, but the affect is subtler here, bridging the gap between some of the more exaggerated scenarios in this story and the very real emotions at its core. The title refers to Llewyn’s independently produced solo album, with which he intends to use to emerge from the shadow of a modestly successful career as one half of a folk duo. But what is really “inside” Llewyn Davis is desperation, a deep-seated need to attain success on his own, almost in spite of himself. He is a tremendously talented musician, but he’s also rejected, beat down, and tired of the struggle.
That struggle, intangible and sometimes inexplicable, is the beast Llewyn wars with for the duration of the film. With no home and very little money, he shuffles from one dive-bar performance to the next, sleeps on friends’ couches, and pieces together any meager payment he receives to survive just long enough to float him to the next tiny gig. Llewyn himself contributes to this itinerant lifestyle since he has a habit of making the wrong decisions at the wrong times, such as eschewing the opportunity for royalties on a recording in exchange for an immediate one-time payment, or rejecting a tryout for a folk group because he’s determined to succeed only as a solo artist. His only recurring companion on this journey is a would-be domesticated house cat, though it’s never clear if it’s one cat or many different ones, since the damn thing is prone to run away. But in all honesty, isn’t Llewyn kind of the same way? Desperate for acceptance but wary when it approaches, running away from solid opportunities in a furious pursuit of something indefinable, and inevitably circling back to where he started.
Such a downbeat plight is familiar territory for the Coen brothers, who frequently mine the dark humor of cruel irony. Llewyn, brilliantly played by Isaac, is a quasi-Job figure on a level similar to the Coens’ 2009 film, A Serious Man, except his frequent “punishment” is not always unwarranted, and his story is not merely plagued with roadblocks by design. The long-suffering themes are elegant and subtle, every bit as beautifully realized as the film’s delicate visual palette. And along the way, the Coens sprinkle morsels of redemptive hope, even if they don’t take an even remotely traditional form. For Llewyn, life might be a cyclical slog, but like the cat, he can find his way home… to that solitary stage, with that beautifully lit microphone.