Movie Review: ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ an empathetic portrait

That comic misfortunes, one after another, should befall the protagonist in a Coen brothers film is expected. Ever the connoisseurs of condescension, the writer/director duo has plenty of doofuses (“Burn After Reading”), slackers (“The Big Lebowski”) and consummate idiots (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) in their oeuvre for gleeful schadenfreude.

But with “Inside Llewyn Davis,” their latest, perhaps most resonant, atmospheric film, they turn their talents to sincerity and sympathy by examining the weight of failure upon the soul. So when the film is funny, and it is quite often, the jabs come at a cost, each one tinged with pain and guilt as the subject, singer and guitarist Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), continually fails to make it big during the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.

Despite the setting, the tale is more mythic than specific, and deeply elemental – the story of a man in a hostile environment, where luck and demand determine success, and talent is just an added bonus, sometimes completely incidental.

In one scene, Davis auditions in front of hot shot club owner Bud Grossman. His music and his voice, mesmerizing to anyone with functioning ears, fail to persuade Grossman to give him a chance as a solo act. Though perhaps transfixed by the song itself, Grossman’s concerns are chiefly financial.

“I don’t see a lot of money here,” he says, matter-of-factly, after the performance.

Grossman, and what he represents, is just one of many obstacles in Llewyn Davis’ way. His success is almost always determined by external factors as he seeks agency – in the business sense, and in terms of free will. What is inside Llewyn Davis – his tremendous musical gifts – doesn’t matter because the world at large is either indifferent or has other plans, evidenced in the climate-focused cinematography that evokes the deterministic tenets of literary naturalism, where the individual is insignificant against the whims of the world.

Bitterly cold and relentless, especially to a man without a coat and no place to dry his snow-soaked socks, the environment is as much a character as Llewyn.

In one scene, he is awakened on a train by the harsh morning light, antagonistic to him yet entirely normal, suggesting he’s not quite fit for this world. His dreary eyes and wan complexion tell a similar tale, as if he’s practically given up. Though technically alive, his spirit has resigned to the burdens of his plight.

Those burdens are sundry: the weight of his guitar which he drags from place to place and to whoever will house him and his gear for the night, not to mention the musical competition, tragic loss, and perhaps, most important of all, himself.

Instead of telling a straightforward tale of naturalism that blames the universe for human failures, the Coen brothers use Llewyn Davis’ characterization to tell a more complicated portrait of an individual’s place in the world. Though often a victim of circumstance, his attitude doesn’t help his cause. Arrogant, careless and often ungrateful to those who want to help him, he has himself to blame for many of his misfortunes, or at least how he responds to them.

That suggests the possibility of change for Llewyn, until the film, in its closing moments, reveals a cruel circular structure. Constantly on the move, but getting nowhere, Llewyn always ends up at the same places, again, and again, and again.

4 stars out of 4.

Rated R for language, including some sexual references.