Art is all about timing. It’s not enough to be talented or creative or passionate or hungry. As much as art is an expression of an individual, it’s produced to be appreciated by others, and others have fickle tastes. The most successful artists apply their talents to some sort of hunger for the work they’re creating. When the timing isn’t just right, though, artists struggle.
Llewyn Davis struggles. The title character in the Coen Brothers’ beautifully crafted, quietly hopeless Inside Llewyn Davis chases after cats, slums for hitmakers, treks across the country, incurs the wrath of his female companions, and sings, softly and loudly, forcefully and listlessly, energetically and exhaustedly, in the hopes that someone, anyone, will see what he sees in himself: a man with a voice that freezes time. But again and again, he runs up against one of life’s most frustrating truisms: sometimes, you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Coens lend specificity to this eternal struggle with evocative period details and a luscious tapestry of music, produced by Coen favorite and producer extraordinaire T Bone Burnett. The folk music in this movie, much of it performed by non-folk singers like Justin Timberlake and even non-singers like Carey Mulligan, isn’t just convincing, it’s stirring. It has depth and soul. Even better, it has imperfections. Voices break, guitars squeak, audiences chatter. It’s music to be experienced in an intimate live setting, surrounded by friendly people hungry for the soothing pluck of an acoustic guitar and the touching timber of a resonant voice.
The movie’s narrative is thin, ambling through several days in Davis’ quest for success in an unforgiving industry. Nobody shouts in his face and tells him he’ll never make it. Everyone’s too pragmatic. One record executive offers to place Davis in a trio with a woman and another man. Another can’t muster the enthusiasm to send Davis’ album to his friend in the industry.
Davis is dealing with frustrations from the other corners in his life as well. His onetime lover Kim (Carey Mulligan, playing against type – hardened cynicism suits her) has taken up with another man, the charming Jim (Justin Timberlake, distracting for a moment, but ultimately a rewarding musical presence), and needs an abortion for the pregnancy that Davis might have incited. His sister won’t put up with his profanity any longer. His friend’s cat has gone missing, and who’s to blame? Llewyn Davis, naturally.
Oscar Isaac plays Davis with an indelible dash of humility, a vengeful streak and a worn-down resignation to his knack for barely scraping by. He’s not classically handsome or dewy-eyed like so many aspiring artists in lesser movies might be. He’s scruffy and brash, seemingly only comfortable when he’s behind his guitar, and maybe not even then. Isaac makes Davis, the poor devil, sympathetic even in his lowest moments.
One of those moments comes during the film’s most tangential section, in which Davis takes a road trip with a wizened old man named Roland who might or might not know dark magic. Roland is played by John Goodman, who could play this kind of character in his sleep but never does, even when Roland himself is conked out in the backseat. Roland’s mystique is the movie’s. It’s clear that Roland belongs to a world this movie doesn’t have time to contemplate, but it’s evidence that the Coens are at the top of their game even when their game is confounding the audience. Every character in this movie suggests a world that could sustain a movie of its own.
Inside Llewyn Davis is as much about grief and loss as it is about the pursuit of one’s artistic ambitions. Without spoiling a crucial plot point, Llewyn Davis has demons that extend far beyond his financial hardships. Idealists like to say that pain makes for great art, but it’s just as easy to imagine pain as an impediment to pure artistic expression, even though that sentiment doesn’t find its way into many Hollywood movies. This movie’s relationship to its art is reverent but not romantic. It’s not an easy movie to love, but it has a beating heart and a dark soul.