'Inside Llewyn Davis': How the Coen Brothers' Latest Anti-hero Wins Us Over

The Coen brothers’ new film and its central character portray a transitional moment in American musical history with melancholy and emotional depth.

Inside Llewyn Davis Written and directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen; with Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, F. Murray Abraham

In almost all of the 16 movies they have made since 1984, brothers Ethan and Joel Coen have set themselves some challenge of genre or form. The results have always been interesting; only their attempts at straight-out comedy – “Intolerable Cruelty,” a bizarre remake of the classic British comedy “The Ladykillers,” or “Burn After Reading” – have failed. All the Coen brothers’ films, even the toughest and most violent of them, have comic elements, but these merge into a dark, ironic and even cynical world view, and enrich it. In contrast, the introduction of darkness, irony and 
cynicism into the Coens’ comedies has had the effect of flattening them.

The plots of their films are usually linear and intricate, and their movies typically contain little tenderness. In that sense, “Inside Llewyn 
Davis,” their latest film, marks a new turning point in their rich oeuvre. To my mind, it is the brothers’ best work since the very different “No Country for Old Men,” which in 2007 won them four Academy Awards, 
including Best Picture and Best Director. The plot of the new movie is seemingly simple, and even if the hero – played by the excellent, all-but-unknown 
Oscar Isaac – is not a very sympathetic fellow, there is a softness in the film that tones down its cruel side and gives it an emotional depth tinged with melancholy (but not sentimentality).

The apparent narrative simplicity of “Inside Llewyn Davis” is not really simple at all. The new movie lacks the many characters and multiple plot twists found in some of the Coens’ previous pictures, such as their debut film, “Blood Simple,” “Miller’s Crossing,” “The Big Lebowski” and “No Country for Old Men.” But the cyclical way in which the movie unfolds, which stands for the hero’s path, is itself a kind of complexity that the directors cultivate with admirable skill.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is set in 1961 against the backdrop of the Greenwich Village folk music scene. The eponymous hero is a capable folk singer. When he performs – and the movie shows many performances at the era’s small folk clubs – his voice and delivery are pleasant enough, but he does not have the talent or charisma to become a star. He is also, like many of his colleagues, trapped in a period of transition in American musical history, between the explosion of rock and roll in the 1950s and the appearance of the great singer-songwriters, like Bob Dylan, who started to perform at the same historical moment in which the Coens have set their film.

Much of the movie’s emotional power comes from the fact that we – unlike Llewyn and his friends – know that their time is almost up. This might have given “Inside Llewyn Davis” the feel of a minor tragedy, but the Coen brothers do not make tragedies. The heroic nature of the genre is incompatible with their sober view of the world (although, throughout the movie, the winter landscape and the hero’s state of mind made me think of William Shakespeare’s beautiful phrase “the winter of our discontent,” which opens his tragedy “Richard III”).

The Coens, successful artists in a country addicted to the cult of success, are drawn to characters who exist alongside an ever-elusive American dream. Llewyn Davis is perhaps the prototype, representing their interest in the most direct and immediate way. Indeed, their hero has much reason for discontent. The New York winter of 1961 is especially harsh (and gives the movie its beautiful grim palette, thanks to the work of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel). Llewyn has neither a coat nor a place to live, and he takes whatever shelter he can find. One place is the home of two friends who ask him to care for their cat in their absence, resulting in some of the movie’s most poignant comic scenes. He also has personal problems, like Jean (Carey Mulligan, good as always in a small role), who is pregnant. The father is either Llewyn or her partner, Jim (Justin Timberlake).

Whether as a result of his personality or his professional frustrations (in one sharp, delicate scene we see Llewyn audition for a manager, played by F. Murray Abraham, who listens to him intently but then tells him with gentle authority the truth about his chances of success), Llewyn does not get along well with others. He is aggressive, tells people exactly what he thinks of them and then returns to his isolation. We indeed spend the movie inside Llewyn Davis, and the human and physical landscape around him represents that interior space with the Coens’ signature blend of candid observation and brief interludes of near-hallucination.

More than the brothers’ previous movies, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the portrait of a time, a place, a cultural watershed, and especially a character operating vis-à-vis all of these. This character wins us over precisely because the Coen brothers do not try to make us like him. “Inside Llewyn Davis” might be called a small, even modest picture, but to me it is richer than some of the Coens’ more spectacular films, whose excessive fervor at times came at the expense of their depth. This is simply a lovely picture, taking us back in time into the doubt-tormented soul of a previous era. There is no nostalgia, no attempt to romanticize, only a human and historical directness that allows that moment to be both real and symbolic at the same time.