I will never understand why “No Country for Old Men,” of all of the Coen Brothers’ films, is the one upon which the Academy Award for Best Picture was bestowed. It is easily my least favorite of their many wonderful and varied works, in which their tendencies toward mythologizing took over the story and made it matter less. Meanwhile, a film as beautiful and interesting as “Inside Llewyn Davis,” probably their most emotionally authentic film, shambles through the Oscars relatively ignored?
With films such as this and “A Serious Man,” the Coens have toned down their visual whimsy for a more naturalistic style, but one that is perfectly controlled nonetheless. Gone are the spinning cans of “Dapper Dan” from “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” and the indelibly wacky dream sequences from “The Big Lebowski.” Instead we get a perfect smoke ring in a cold quiet car ride, hanging in the miserable silence as Davis endures a hellish road trip in pursuit of his ever dimming prospects as a musician.
The strength of writing that made every moment of “The Big Lebowski” a perfectly conducted masterpiece of interrelated lines and stories is still in service of a more realistic story. Llewyn Davis is a struggling folk singer, couch surfing through Greenwich Village in 1961, leaving lost pets and unplanned pregnancies in his morose wake.
Llewyn gazes at the world through heavy lidded eyes, his expression sardonic whether he is chasing a cat down the street or receiving career rejection. The source of this expression is a supreme confidence in his own talent, and a staunch refusal to compromise. These traits seem particularly galling to the females he encounters, giving the baby faced Carey Mulligan a chance to go ballistic every time they are alone together.
Everyone is the movie is wonderful, and there is not a moment that is wasted. Everything we see is meant to be there. John Goodman is unforgettable in a short but brilliant part as a jazz musician. Justin Timberlake is perfect as Mulligan’s husband, Llewyn’s clean-cut romantic and professional rival, representing a far more marketable folk faction. A recording session of his lively, idiotic song about being an astronaut gives the film one of its few laugh-out-loud sequences (we mostly get rueful chuckles,) and also gives us a chance to see Adam Driver (Adam from “Girls”!) show his stuff.
Llewyn Davis, as gorgeously portrayed by Oscar Isaac, has little to personally recommend him, except for his talent. It is particularly painful when he insults a doting Upper West Side couple of intellectuals who put him up, put up with him, and feed him no matter how obnoxiously he treats them. But despite his many terrible qualities, the character as he is written, acted, and sung, is one of the most oddly sympathetic characters I have ever seen. If Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men” was a terrifying cipher, Llewyn and his desperate life are wonderfully the opposite, and you don’t have to tank as a musician to feel his pain.