There’s a moment midway through the new Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, when the title character comes to a literal crossroads. I won’t say where Llewyn Davis has the opportunity to go, but whether he veers his car slightly right, or continues straight ahead, his life will be forever altered. It’s a choice. A moral dilemma. Go this way and explore something new. Go that way and remain stuck.
And that’s exactly where Llewyn Davis is when we first meet him: stuck. As a superbly talented but financially struggling folk musician in ‘60s era Greenwhich Village, we learn that Llewyn’s worst enemy is himself. After years of never quite making ends meet, let alone reaching stardom, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) has grown bitter and cold toward the world. He slums around the Village, taking gigs where he can, eating scraps out of friends’ fridges, and crashing on the couches of people who still tolerate him. Llewyn is the kind of self-entitled artist who is aware of his talent, and furious that the world hasn’t caught up yet.
Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t have a plot. There’s no singular conflict for the protagonist to resolve, mainly because Llewyn Davis’ entire life is a conflict. Beyond his daily struggles to secure work and shelter, the film focuses on Llewyn’s shattered relationships with people. This includes the fiery Jean (Carey Mulligan), Jean’s understanding-if-not-naïve partner, Jim (Justin Timberlake), the overly nice wealthy couple who consistently welcome Llewyn into their home, the bar owner who fights Llewyn as often as he hugs him, and so on. The film gracefully shifts from Llewyn’s interactions with these people, to spellbinding musical performances, to extended sequences of Llewyn’s isolation. There’s no three act structure – Llewyn’s life is stuck in Act 1, waiting to find propose or motivation.
Oscar Isaac is a wonderful young character actor who has appeared in a number of popular films, perhaps most notably as Mulligan’s doomed husband in Drive. But with Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac has seized the opportunity to deliver a star making performance. It’s hard to play such a loathsome character and have the audience begging for more, but Isaac is so captivating in his pity, that you can’t take your eyes off him. As Jean, Mulligan delivers her angriest work to date. It was actually quite refreshing to watch her play a character void of emotional beauty. Justin Timberlake also pleasingly plays against type, presenting the least flashy performance of his career. It was great to be drawn to both Mulligan and Timberlake for reasons I wasn’t used to.
The acting is splendid, the musical performances are remarkable, and it’s one of the best looking films of the year, thanks to Bruno Delbonnel’s cold and sepia-infused color palette. So, essentially, Inside Llewyn Davis should be another classic Coen brothers film. But there was something missing. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but something I simply could not shake. As much as I prefer character studies to plot-heavy pictures, I never fully invested in Inside Llewyn Davis. The film was occasionally so sparse it was off-putting, and I found its bookended looping narrative device to be pointless and distracting.
But I’m just one opinion. By most accounts, Inside Llewyn Davis is a hit, destined to be one of the most critically revered films of 2013. Maybe it will speak to you more profoundly than it did me. I will say this about the film: I saw it weeks ago and haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. I’m still haunted by those crossroads, wondering what would’ve happened if Llewyn went the other way. B