"Inside Llewyn Davis" is a marvel of light and composition. Gorgeous muted colors, light streaming through windows, atmospheric shadows inside the Gaslight - the legendary Greenwich Village music club so important to the careers of people like Bob Dylan and Dave van Ronk.
It’s 1961. The folk music craze is just starting to hit, and the Coens have created a romantic vision of the place and the time. Even a fight is beautiful, staged in a perfect alley with a single shaft of light putting a figure in elegant silhouette.
The character Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is slightly based on singer Dave van Ronk and his book "The Mayor of MacDougal Street". The Coen brothers pick up a few incidents from van Ronk, but the film is in no significant way about him.
Soulful and combative Llewyn Davis sleeps on friends’ couches, plays music, alienates many occasional friends, and winds up carrying a cat around the city for much of the film.
The cat may be the one false note in the movie. Davis’ concern for the cat is probably meant to soften the audience’s view of a character who can be annoying. But the ploy is obvious, and Davis doesn’t need the apology. The torment of his life is obvious.
As much as I admire the Coens’ profound skills, I don’t generally love their work. They encourage audiences to feel superior to the typically unsuccessful characters on screen. But like "Fargo", which may be the Coens’ best film so far, "Inside Llewyn Davis" avoids casting contempt upon its own people.
Neither Davis, nor any of the other characters, come off as less worthy than viewers of the film. Llewyn may get lost in his struggles, but not because he’s less than other beings.
Late in the movie, in the Gaslight, Davis heckles a dowdy woman playing the autoharp and singing the kind of sincere but dreary folksong that some of us at the time found deep. Davis is cruel to her, but the movie doesn’t share his ridicule. She’s not a joke.
Neither is Davis. He’s angry because he doesn’t know where he stands in his own world, and he’s taking it out on someone who doesn’t deserve it. It’s a good, tough scene because it won’t let the audience off the hook with a hit of cheap scorn.
Like Davis, though, the movie as a whole is locked inside itself. One thing the Coens do not use from Dave van Ronk’s book is his engagement with the outside world. He was actively political, in terms of national and world politics, as well as the gnarly political camps within the tiny world of folk music. But the filmmakers show little interest in things outside of the inside of Llewyn Davis.
Davis has a continuing connection to Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan), a woman who got pregnant, and the father is either Davis or her husband. Mulligan looks ready to run with this role, but the film keeps the part small. Maybe it’s to show that Davis is bad at relationships – which he is – or maybe it’s that the Coen brothers are thinking small.
For all the extraordinary attention to visual detail, "Inside Llewyn Davis" doesn’t have much ambition. It’s content to watch Llewyn Davis get nowhere in his life, and not open up too many questions – or insights – about it.
Davis visits his catatonic father in a home where he plays and sings for him. The father looks up and seems attentive. But the film cuts off the almost touching moment and ends implying that it was just intestinal distress.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" can be sarcastic, or also too chicken to follow its own possibilities.
Howie Movshovitz has been reviewing films for Colorado Public Radio for many years, and he teaches film at the University of Colorado Denver.