Joel and Ethan Coen have made bleaker films than Inside Llewyn Davis, yet they've never produced anything remotely this melancholy.
Set in a slightly fable-like version of the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene, the film is inspired by Dave Van Ronk's memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street but haunted by the specter of Bob Dylan's impending emergence, even as it exudes the Coens' oddball comedic sensibility and stylistic verve. Struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis is brilliantly played by Oscar Isaac, as he naturally inhabits the role in a way actors rarely do with the Coen brothers.
When the film opens, Davis awakens in the spare bedroom of an above-his-station East Village apartment. We quickly understand that couch-surfing is a defining element of his personality, an expression of his simultaneous yearning for and alienation from family life and creature comforts. It's a situation exacerbated by the recent death of his former partner Mike, which has led Davis to start an unsuccessful solo career.
The revolution that Dylan later helped inspire was in part about a rejection of conformity, and often by extension a rejection of partnerships and of the bonds of family. Early on, Davis has to scrape together money to fund an abortion for the second time, here for the wife (Carey Mulligan) of a nebbish-y folk singer colleague played surprisingly well by Justin Timberlake.
Through the film, Davis is shadowed by a succession of orange tabbies, and the stray cats become both a running gag and the film's spirit animals. The rootless cockiness of the cats is an easy symbol for Davis' moody narcissism, as he proudly claims to the people who let him crash that music is his way "to pay the rent and put food on the table," much in the way that lazy cats believe they own their human benefactors.
Davis is a gorgeous movie, and it shows that even the Coens' ability to visualize a particular time and place as both tangible and slightly dream-like, without resorting to imitation or nostalgia, has matured. Compare the narrow Greenwich Village hallways and smoky nightclubs here to the oppressive over-decoration and winking arch-ness of their 1950s-set The Hudsucker Proxy.
Given the abundance of T Bone Burnett songs — the soundtrack mixes new tunes and standards in every shade of pre-plugged-in folk, including an Irish ballad and a Carter Family-esque Ozark gothic — many will compare this to O Brother, Where Art Thou? However, this film has none of the garish humor and shrill symbolism of that unpleasant movie. The real Coen ancestor to Davis is their excellent Barton Fink.
That 1991 Palme d'Or winner offered one of film's most damning portraits of artistic soullessness. Their Fink is an underdeveloped and overhyped playwright brought to Hollywood by bottom-line scrapers looking for a touch of prestige, then sent to work on a brainless genre flick, as he all the while longs to tell the story of the "common man" he knows and cares nothing about.
To borrow a notable line from the film, Barton Fink showed us "the life of the mind," but Davis presents us the life of a yearning and defeated heart. Unlike Fink, Davis clearly possesses some talent. In the Coens' eyes, that makes his boorish egomania no more or less forgivable than it does with a clueless nitwit like Fink, but it does makes Davis an almost tragic figure of isolation and loneliness. Proof perhaps that the Coen brothers have grown both less forgiving and more merciful with age.