Roger Ebert once wrote of Federico Fellini that his film language was so masterfully simple that it felt like breathing. You feel that same sense of mastery in Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen. As many will no doubt already be aware, it’s set mostly in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s, at the height of the folk music craze. Its title character is a singer-songwriter fallen on hard times: petulant and often careless, he has alienated himself from many of his friends and colleagues, and he is told that his moody folk ballads aren’t marketable. Much of the humor and pathos of the film comes from the Coens introducing even more complications—a runaway cat; a road trip with eccentric, unfriendly strangers; an unplanned pregnancy—to Davis’s already complicated situation. Underneath (or inside) the absurdist plot devices and comic gags, it’s a character study about a talented person whose ambitions keep getting sabotaged, sometimes by his own stubbornness and pride, sometimes by forces that seem to be outside of his control. (The film’s cleverly designed structure further suggests that Davis might be the victim of karmic fate, doomed to repeat his mistakes until he learns how to avoid them.)
As a story, Inside Llewyn Davis is tremendously engaging—deeply felt, beautifully paced, and embroidered with rich details. The background of the film is filled out with the usual Coen types (a sad-sack Jewish talent agent, wonky academics, etc.), all of them drawn with strokes that are just broad enough that they avoid becoming cartoons. But a description of the plot of Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t much convey what’s so remarkable about it, which is the sure-handedness with which it has been crafted. It may be the closest thing to a perfect film I’ve seen this year; there’s not a single false note in the whole thing. Aided in large part by the carefully modulated performance of Oscar Isaac in the title role, it manages to convey a sense of warmth without getting bogged down in sentimentality or reaching for cliché platitudes.
The scenes in which Davis performs his songs are the purest and most exultant in the film; as in the best movie musicals, the songs both stop the narrative in its tracks and somehow elevate it to a higher plane. Like the film itself, they’re gentle, wounded, mournful, and yet somehow irrepressible in their emotional power. Those who see this film as depressing do so only by overlooking its, and Davis’s, passionate, even romantic spirit. Inside Llewyn Davis is not about the tragic defeat of the artist by society but about his compulsion, even in the wake of his failure, to express his own intensity of feeling, to make something beautiful out of ragged pain.
Over the past twenty years or so I’ve enjoyed nearly all of the Coen Brothers’ films, some of which are grim and funny (Fargo), others of which are grand and thrilling (True Grit), still others of which are dark and meditative (No Country for Old Men). Inside Llewyn Davis is the first of their films to achieve a state of grace.