You may be tricked by the ending of Coen brothers latest picture, Inside Llewyn Davis, to believe that nothing of significance happens to the titular character. That the endings’ return to the place where it all began signifies a lack of an arc, and that the events themselves are not going to have a lasting impact on Llewyn. This is wrong.
It’s true, the week or so over the course of which the film takes place does not end with some momentous change in the character’s life. Rather all of the story, the character’s evolution that takes place all serves to return the character to his status quo – which, as it happens, is a constant state of crisis, quitting, and change.
This understanding of the character is, in truth, what makes Inside Llewyn Davis so insightful. The central character, a struggling folk singer, may in another film seem very familiar – and, indeed, be rather boring at this point. What distinguishes Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Llewyn, however, is the fact that he’s not the naive, impassioned young musician we’ve seen portrayed a million times before. He is, rather, an old hand at this. While the first time we see him play is certainly beautiful – the film opens on that very image, an extended look at one of his songs that hints at a depth of suffering and self-understanding that, frankly, does not truly seem to exist in in the singer. Llewyn is not an enlightened, suffering artist, but rather a musician in the grip of boring reality. He makes money here and there recording a song or playing a gig, but his album is not selling well, and Llewyn is permanently couch surfing with people that, altogether, don’t seem to like him very much. Those who do like him, seemingly, do so by having to continuously forgive and forget his past slights and wrongs.
It would be easy to say that Llewyn Davis is simply a guy down on his luck, and that he is certainly the way he would present himself. The truth is, naturally, considerably more complex. While being, to a certain extent, a victim of is circumstance, he really does create much of the trouble he finds himself in. Definitely not through stupidity, which he could not be accused of – but occasionally due to the smugness his intelligence creates. Not through being an asshole, as he is often accused of, though he frequently takes his frustration out on those around him. Instead, he simply does not seem to be able to cope with his life properly. He despises mere “existence”, as he humorously accuses his father of, yet finds himself doing nothing more than that in the music world. His day-to-day is no more exciting than any one else’s existence. Neither is he himself burning with inner drive and enthusiasm about the music he’s making. Though he’s frequently shown playing, we never see his excitement about music, or a drive to succeed, which we must assume he must have had at some point in his career. It is perhaps not surprising, nor a spoiler, that he finds no major success with his music – neither during the course of the movie, nor, likely, later. He even attempts to quit music during the course of the film but finds, for various reasons, that he can’t even do that! Therefore, he is trapped, in his mundane, day-to-day existence, despite being a folk musician of some note. This shows that even in entertainment business, which we are so often trained to see as glamorous is just as conducive to boredom.
This is not to suggest that Inside Llewyn Davis is some dour, depressing film. It is, at times, as funny as anything the Coen brothers have put out. In fact, there isn’t even a tone of darkness, typically. Following Llewyn is not an unpleasant journey, because the Coen brothers refuse to make it so. It is full of enjoyable characters – small roles by Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, Adam Driver, and John Goodman vary from serious with Mulligan to hilarious with the Coen veteran Goodman. It is the complex portrayal of the central character, however, that makes Inside Llewyn Davis a worthwhile film.