Inside Llewyn Davis (2013):
The Plot: A folk musician (Oscar Isaac) in 60s New York City couch surfs through life in the wake of his former partner’s suicide, lashing out at friends and strangers as his career goes nowhere. There is also a cat, a drug-addicted jazz musician (John Goodman), and an affair with Carey Mulligan (Carey Mulligan with bangs) that has gone horribly, horribly wrong. Bleakness and hilarity ensue, with more emphasis placed on the former than the latter.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a beautiful piece of cinema. While not quite a ten on the infamous Melville-Gladwin Sadness Scale, the first scene should make it clear that This is Not a Happy Movie. The film opens with Llewyn playing in a dive bar, singing a cover of Dave Van Ronk’s “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” itself a cover of a classic folk song. It’s a raw performance; evocative and sincere, but very, very personal. As the film goes on, we begin to see that grief has crippled Llewyn’s empathy. Each song he performs is a flood of pain, but he’s never sharing it. He doesn’t want to be comforted. He just wants money. Well, he needs money. His grief has taken away his bearings to the point where he’s acting on instinct more than anything else. Llewyn is just existing.
This isn’t a film about talent, music, or making it big. Inside Llewyn Davis is about grief, and the ways it can ruin your life if you keep it bottled up. Llewyn’s pain is his pain. He can’t talk to anyone about Mike, because who knew his partner like he did? This kind of loss, by its very nature, is deeply personal. But the inability to share that loss, to empathize, is destructive. The pain never stops, and Llewyn’s life never goes anywhere. He repeats the same mistakes, hurts the same people in an endless cycle.
It’s been said that the Coen brothers like to punish their characters. They certainly do have a dark sense of humor, but I’ve never found that to be true of their work. It certainly isn’t true here. Inside Llewyn Davis, for all its bleakness, is a compassionate film. They understand Llewyn’s pain, and that’s why his life is such a mess. It’s also why, in the words of Mulligan’s character, he’s an “asshole.” That’s what happens when the pain is all you have.
If you’ve seen any of the trailers, you’ll know that Llewyn has a cat. Well, it’s not really his. He just didn’t know what to do with it. There’s a trope, that all screenwriters and most movie-goers will recognize, called the “save the cat moment.” It’s where the protagonist does something simple like save a cat or comfort a child or whatever, just so you know he’s a good dude. Llewyn, crashing at a friend’s apartment, accidentally lets their cat out when he’s leaving. So he takes it with him. There. He feels some responsibility for the cat. It’s at the beginning of the movie, so all we know so far is that he’s sad, he was a mess last night (he leaves a note), and he’s the kind of guy who will look after your cat.
The Coen brothers are using a trope older than cinema to get us on Llewyn’s side. Classic. Except then Llewyn loses the cat, thinks he finds it again, and gives it back to the owners, only to have them point out that it isn’t the same cat, let alone the same sex. “Where’s its scrotum?!” is, in context, both hilarious and heartbreaking.
Llewyn fucked up his “save the cat” moment. But by this point in the film, it doesn’t come as a surprise. We’ve seen him interact with other people, now; we know he’s an asshole. A deeply troubled asshole, but an asshole nonetheless. This is, of course, intentional. It’s the Coen brothers. The way they subvert this trope that’s ingrained in our cultural subconscious is, if not brilliant, at least pretty damn clever. Llewyn’s failure to recognize the cat that he’s supposed to be saving is further indicative of his inability to empathize on a very basic level. He’s so lost that he doesn’t even recognize if a cat is a boy or a girl.
All this talk of pain and grief and cats makes this film seem bleak to the point of being unbearable. But as I said earlier, Inside Llewyn Davis is a compassionate movie. After all, the Coen brothers have, like all great storytellers, always been about the truths of human existence. It sounds lofty, even pretentious, but think about it: The fundamental absurdity of our lives revealed in films like The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading. Or, now that I mention it, pretty much any of their movies. Flawed, human, quirky characters trying to make the best of weird, sometimes terrible situations. You’ve got Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter kidnapping a baby, or Josh Brolin trying to stay one step ahead of Javier Bardem’s terrible hair.
While Llewyn is bouncing from couch to couch, burning bridges as he goes, or scrounging money to pay for an abortion, there’s never a moment where it feels anything less than the actions of a flawed, human character trying to make the best of a bad situation. Admittedly, the bad situations are mostly his doing, but, again, grief can be an incredibly destructive force.
Isaac’s performance matches this level of understanding. He never makes the mistake of overplaying it to gain the audience’s sympathy. He knows who Llewyn is, and understands what the Coens are doing here. This isn’t terribly surprising, since Oscar Isaac is super talented, and the Coen brothers rarely miscast—I’m looking at you, The Ladykillers.
The supporting performances are equally on-point. Carey Mulligan is her usual dedicated self, playing her part exactly as the film needs it to be played. Justin Timberlake nails Jim’s naïve sincerity, with a great comedic scene to boot. John Goodman’s odious jazz musician (is there any other kind?)* is a delight to watch. Even Garrett Hedlund, from whom I haven’t seen anything particularly inspiring, is perfectly suited for his role.
If there was ever any doubt, the Coen brothers have still got it. Frankly, I don’t see them ever losing it. Inside Llewyn Davis is an honest, bittersweet portrayal of a man consumed by grief. Not only is it very Coen-y—always a good thing—but it’s also one of the best movies of the year. If you haven’t seen it yet, I heartily recommend that you do so with some alacrity. Oh, and go buy the soundtrack, because it has the only Marcus Mumford song that hasn’t made me want to punch a cardigan.
*Rooster Illusion is not a big fan of jazz.