Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), directed by the Coen Bros. and starring Oscar Isaac in his breakthrough role, was almost entirely overlooked at the Oscars. Perhaps that’s because, despite the astounding recreation of the Greenwich Village scene and an atmosphere and texture that you can almost feel through the screen, struggling folk singer Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is not a particularly likable guy. Which is not to say he’s a villain or even a bigger jerk than some of the folks around him, but while he’s not mean-spirited or malevolent (well, apart from that one time, and you’ll know it when you see it), he is insensitive and self-absorbed. Despite the beauty of his musical performances, he doesn’t connect with people. And he certainly doesn’t get what folk audiences see in the rest of the musicians struggling for an audience at the local folk clubs.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a road movie that circles back on itself in pretty much every way, a road to oblivion that Llewyn tramps in hope of finding his success, but this is not a success story. Llewyn has been called “a loser” by some critics, but that’s not fair. His failure isn’t artistic, it’s commercial, and he endures the bad luck that afflicts so many of the hard-luck characters of the Coen universe without the comic bounce or dogged resilience that often saves those who persevere.
That sly, sardonic Coen tone is more understated here, found in the little details of existence and the odd nuances of the offbeat characters (and John Goodman is truly one outsized, offbeat creation as an itinerate jazz musician with a heroin addiction) and the unusual situations that get amplified and echoed throughout the film. And the original folk music performed in the film was crafted with the help of the Coens’ O Brother Where Art Thou? musical partner T-Bone Burnett and it is superb, evoking the era’s styles and textures while standing on its own as original musical creations.
Don’t expect the punchlines or big dramatic payoffs you get from other filmmakers. This is the Coens in bittersweet mode, a little oblique, a little downbeat, and a little offbeat. It’s not altogether satisfying necessarily, but neither does it let go when it’s over.