A Folk Odyssey

Of all the things to appreciate about the new Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, I’m hung up on the color and the light. These days, it’s easy to give your photos a retro feel; just open Instagram and let the magic happen. It’s not so easy to make your entire film evoke the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, right down to the cars, the streets and the color of Dylan’s jacket, which is echoed by the bag schlepped around by Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). 

It’s early 1961, and Llewyn, sweet-faced and prickly, is no Dylan. But he’s talented enough that the Coens let the movie become a musical from time to time; songs are heard in their entirety, in Isaac’s mournful, gentle voice — which stands in direct contrast to his personality. Llewyn is a surly couch-surfer who, early in the film, accidentally lets a friend’s cat out. He spends much of the movie toting the marmalade feline around, and it stands in for us, for a different version of Llewyn, one whose curiosity is less dulled by grief. It’s the cat’s face we see reflected in the subway windows as Llewyn takes the train from his friends’ airy Upper West Side apartment to the narrow streets of Greenwich Village. Llewyn isn’t paying any attention.

The Coens never let Inside Llewyn Davis be taken over by just tone, by Llewyn’s grief — his former music partner has, at some indeterminate point before the movie’s open, committed suicide — by his anger, or by his disillusionment. But it is Llewyn’s movie, and no one else gets the slightest hint of an interior life. His friend and sometimes-musical collaborator Jim (Justin Timberlake) is the Nice Guy; a guitar-toting soldier named Troy (Stark Sands) is the Even Nicer Guy. Carey Mulligan, as Jean, the music and marriage partner of Jim, is mostly angry — for very good reason (and it’s great to see Mulligan get a role that doesn’t just require her sweetness). But it’s hard to believe in the events that have led Jean to be so angry; she exists mostly as another foil to Llewyn, who’s already plenty good at foiling himself.

You can almost read Inside Llewyn Davis as a story about the fickleness of fame, but the Coens are too sly, too sophisticated, to let the movie skew too far in that overly simple direction. Llewyn is talented, but not so much that we’re certain he deserves success. On a Chicago road trip — a minor odyssey inside a story that is itself a minor odyssey — Llewyn meets with a club owner (a stoic, scary F. Murray Abraham) who sums up Llewyn’s chances with one dire sentence. Is it a commentary on the music biz, or on Llewyn? Both, or neither. Llewyn isn’t self-aware enough to realize he’s muddled by grief, but he’s too self-aware to traipse blindly through life, pretending it’s all open doors and opportunity.  

This is a story in which nothing and everything happens, and for all the time Llewyn spends on the move, the world the Coens have created for him is oddly sealed off. The perfect use of light, color and period detail calls to mind the precise world-building of a Wes Anderson film, though infinitely less twee. (Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel knows how to shoot a specific world; he also filmed Amélie.) For those of us who weren’t there, the era seems so perfectly recreated that nothing escapes the film; it’s like a short story you fall into for a time, but when you come back out of it, little of the tale stays with you. Can you fault a film for being too precise? Maybe. For all the evocative images, resonant songs, lovely performances and melancholy, Llewyn Davis doesn’t really want to let you in. 

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS: Written, directed and edited by Joel and Ethan Coen. Cinematography, Bruno Delbonnel. Music, T-Bone Burnett, Todd Kasow and Marcus Mumford. Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Jeanine Serralles and John Goodman. CBS Films, 2013. R. 104 minutes. Four Stars.