Inside Llewyn Davis is a grey movie. A purgatory Künstlerroman in which personal and artistic growth are on a permanent, cynical hiatus for the titular protagonist, but blossoming all around him. Though it doesn’t eliminate the possibility that there’s no such thing as blossoming, and Davis is the only one who sees it. Set in the early 60’s Greenwich Village folk music scene from which Bob Dylan emerged, this isn’t a “the-guy-who-should’ve-been-famous” story, or even a love letter to a fascinating era and genre. It’s a story of bitterness and belligerent war with validation. “How good you are doesn’t always matter,” Joel Coen says. “That’s what the movie is about.” What a grey sentiment.
Early on, Davis (Oscar Isaac) shudders at the thought of a life without music and counterculture, in which he “just exists.” His sister replies “Just exist? Is that all we do outside of show-business?” The Coens’ characteristically sharp script returns to this theme over and over, present in a multitude of conflicts. Careerist vs. loser. Contradiction vs. acceptance. Challenging vs. patronizing. In the abstract, the choice often seems clear. Why would anyone choose to be a loser, or not to question precedent and follow one’s own heart and vision? But watching our protagonist trudge through many of the lowest points of his social and emotional paths, the clarity is lost. He’s the latest in a line of endearing assholes that populate the directors’ oeuvre, and perhaps even more so than the Finks and Lebowskis out there, he’s really trying to put up a fight. The character who is regarded as such a no good deadbeat by his romantic-interest-turned-antagonist Jean (Carey Mulligan) that she advises him to triple-wrap his junk with garbage bags, so that there’s no danger of him ever reproducing, is actually the hardest-working person in the movie. Llewyn Davis’s integrity and commitment always fall flat. How good you are doesn’t always matter.
Frequently, we see shots delivered with a faux-vintage soft focus. The exteriors are beautiful and ripped straight from a postcard or a Freewheelin’ singer’s album cover. It’s all a brilliant affront to the title character, a seething misanthrope dropped into a Frank Capra movie and gumming up the works. At a dinner party thrown by a professor friend on the Upper East Side, Davis is surrounded by generosity but suffocated by his own malaise and demons. He snaps, in the midst of a small performance for an adoring audience. “I thought singing was the soul’s expression of joy?” one of his hosts asks. By this point, the audience is so engrossed in the fractured, beaten-down psyche of the film’s lead, they scoff without thinking at the naivete of the question. The movie’s desaturated palette begins to fade from a noticeable aesthetic choice into an enduring feeling. It bleeds into the script, and the performances, turning everything grey, and eliminating the possibility of a triumphant final act. By the time Llewyn Davis sits down across from record exec Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) in a cleared out Gate of Horn, we already know what’s going to happen. Inside Llewyn Davis, as a rule, features full cuts of its songs throughout, often serving as tiny oases of fruitful ambition, but here functioning as one of several tragic, prolonged eulogies, absorbed by Grossman’s half-lit inscrutable scowl.
It’s worth mentioning, and possibly expected from the Coen Brothers, that for all its dark moments and ideas, the movie is also consistently hilarious. Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver feature in small roles that culminate in a bizarre nightmare of a novelty song recording session. John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund helm a surreal cross country road trip that abruptly concludes just as it threatens to drive the whole film off the rails. There are a series of mishaps involving a cat, whose name is delivered via a big reveal and is part joke, part irony, and part fuel for a reading that the cat is in fact the main character of the movie. There’s so much to dissect here that many viewers will walk away having keyed in on completely different embodiments of the core concepts, all valid and fully-formed. It’s a massive movie, threaded through the needle-eye of a hyperspecific setting. And it came out very grey.