Joel and Ethan Coen’s brilliant film Inside Llewyn Davis is not, by definition, a musical. The characters do not break into spontaneous song to express their deepest emotions. There is no dancing. There is very little performance. No, Inside Llewyn Davis is something else entirely. It is a movie with real, honest music. A movie with real, honest people dealing with real, honest problems. Somewhere between film and real life, bridging the gap through song, it is a movie about love and loss and beauty, and it is absolutely one of the best films of 2013.
The movie is set in 1961 and follows singer/songwriter Llewyn Davis, who bums around New York’s Greenwhich Village trying to make a career for himself in the folk music movement. He sleeps on friends’ couches and his only real possession is his guitar, which he carries everywhere. Llewyn is the quintessential starving artist: depressed, nowhere to go, music his only true love. And yes, along the way there are songs. There is music. But the music is not cheesy. It does not saturate the movie or relentlessly drive the plot forward (if there even is a plot to be driven forward). The music is simply a function of the artist as a musician, and that is where the Coen brothers succeed in such remarkable fashion.
In most movies when characters sing songs they are glamorized in one way or another, and very rarely are the songs allowed to exist in their entirety. Directors are fond of cutting to different actions with the song continuing in the background, or they let the characters begin the song but cut to a different scene before it has been completed. With Inside Llewyn Davis the Coen brothers simply let the music be. The songs are not mere soundtrack but almost always a part of the action in the film, and every piece that begins on screen is allowed to end. That is part of what separates this film from so many others, and lends it a sense of authentic vitality that many “productions” lack.
Whereas most movies are content cinematically to gloss over musical performances, in this film it is vital for us to experience the performances in their entirety because the film itself is about Llewyn’s struggle to create music. The Coen brothers do not tell us how to feel about the art in the film but instead let us judge it for ourselves, much as we would a live performance. Almost all the music in Inside Llewyn Davis has that same live performance feeling; that sense of the audience being there with the characters is part of what makes this film so different, so special, so languorous.
Inside Llewyn Davis is not a fast film. The pacing is slow and leisurely, lingering luxuriously on the various aspects of Llewyn’s life. However while the pacing may be slow, the film never drags. It moves at a steady pace without rushing from one thing to the next, and the Coen brothers give exactly the right amount of screen time to each moment. The music and cinematography give the film momentum, and the colorful characters keep the audience absorbed throughout.
Oscar Isaac as the title character gives a particularly outstanding performance. He inhabits Llewyn’s character with such sincerity that one completely forgets he is acting. Llewyn feels like someone you might encounter on the street, or see playing a gig in a local bar. Isaac plays him with a quiet, reserved intensity. Llewyn does not easily reveal his emotions, but we can see that they are always there, a storm of feelings swirling just under the surface.
The Coens put the audience inside Llewyn’s head through a number of cinematic techniques including standard point-of-view shots, as well as some truly impressive tracking shots. The directors love to slowly track in (often towards a characters’ face), which works brilliantly to draw attention, create movement, and keep the audience invested in the film. The tracks are very slow—almost imperceptible—and they bring the audience closer to the important focal point without us really noticing how we got there. The Coen brothers’ investment in and liberal use of these shots mean that by the end of the film we really feel like we know Llewyn Davis, a necessity for such a tightly focused character study.
Like many of the Coen brothers’ films Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of a modern day Ulysses. Utterly abandoned by the gods, Llewyn continues on his futile journey, despite the sheer improbability of success. The film itself (which travels from New York to Chicago and back again) also has a mesmerizing cyclical air to it, and we get the sense that, unlike Ulysses, Llewyn travels in circles without ever reaching a final destination. There is no home to which he can return.
Llewyn begins and ends the movie in essentially the same circumstances, but, in a very anti-Hollywood touch, this is a film without any major cathartic moment. Llewyn does not come to any monumental realization about his way of life, nor does his life change drastically. It seems like a bleak way to approach a movie (and the film is indeed very melancholy), but the music we experience along his fruitless odyssey is what makes this journey beautiful and compelling. Llewyn Davis may not be the most sympathetic character, but by the end of the film it is almost impossible not to feel sorry for him. We may not like this prickly folk singer, but at least we understand him. Without the music, that understanding would never have been possible. Without the music, there would be little beauty in this depiction of the life of a starving artist. Without the music, we would not have this incredible glimpse inside Llewyn Davis.
Zach Saldacher is a senior in the English Department.