Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis ★★★★★

Llewyn Davis must be one of the least ingratiating characters in film history. He is tired and ragged, governed by principles so austere that even serenading a dinner table enrages his ethical character. His skin is so thick that grief can't reach the surface, and what makes Inside Llewyn Davis so masterful is that the Coens never let it.

Much like their other masterpiece A Serious Man (likely their best film), Inside Llewyn Davis is a test of endurance and repression. The Coen bros. run their protagonist through an unforgiving mill and wonder aloud if he can come out the other side. Needless to say Llewyn can't.

Oscar Isaac embodies a pretentious sort of last-rope Beatnik ideology; the Coens thought they'd never find an appropriate star, one who could sing and act with equal prowess, yet o' golly how they were wrong. Isaac should abandon Poe Dameron -- he's a Brando in waiting, and Llewyn Davis is a testament to that. Entire volumes of character are communicated in fleeting reaction shots, as per usual with the Coens' editing, and Isaac emotes quietly, brilliantly, and silently.

Unique among the upper echelons of cinema are the Coens. While most prolific filmmakers define themselves by visual style, a subject, or craft itself, the brothers remain individual through sheer voice -- like Joyce or Hemingway or Pynchon, they evince tone and worldview beyond the form itself. Whether written or filmed or spoken over a dinner table, one suspects Joel and Ethan would elucidate the same narrative.

Few of the Coens' narratives are this despairing though; even Fargo seems like an upbeat farce compared to Llewyn Davis, perhaps because the former at least finds certainty among designating its most moral characters. In Inside Llewyn Davis there is no north star to guide our character, there is no compass. He tries and he fails, and that is the course of his life and many others. It's a narrative trajectory few tread because it cuts so close to a universally human bone.

It's sad. It keeps me up at night. To imagine Llewyn toiling away at the bottom for an eternity as so many must have. The fleeting uselessness of his life and others -- perhaps the Coen bros. pessimism is infectious. Yet Llewyn Davis surpasses most of the filmmaking duo's other work for the simple reason of sympathy. The Big Lebowski is a great, fun film, but look at it probingly -- it's a despairing work; a comical portrait of ineffective ex-counterculturalists who similarly toil away in bowling alleys in spite of their noble pasts. Remember, The Dude was a member of the Seattle Seven.

But rather than slander the misbegotten rugged individual as they did with Lebowski, the Coens wistfully sing dirges to them. The brothers have softened with age perhaps, and Inside Llewyn Davis is their elegy to all those ineffectual floating weeds whom they've lambasted in the past. A letter of apology to the bohemians who dare to be in spite of the world around them.

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