INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is my favorite movie of 2013 and might have slipped into my favorite movies of all time, a list that never really completes but is always comprised of generally the same stuff. That's the biggest compliment I can give a movie, but it's not necessarily a recommendation per se, nor is it supposed to be a statement on a film's quality. My favorite movies list is a personal list that reflects, not just my taste, but a piece of who I am. My love affair with the cinema began with the Coen brothers and fittingly, 6 years later, here they are again.
From the very first scene, I could tell I was going to love this movie. I don't know about love at first sight, or the Hollywood romanticized version of true love, I guess I'm both too idealistic and too cynical to be swayed by simple concepts. I wonder sometimes if there are others out there like me, the lonely poets, watching life happen to everyone around us, only ever really able to connect for brief meetings over coffee or to exchange phone numbers knowing full well that the other person will never call before we go back to our comforting isolation, finding solace in music or art or sleep. I don't trust people who can look you in the eye without wavering. I'm not sure if I can believe anyone who is absolutely sure of their morality. I can't love anyone who has never known sorrow.
The feeling that warmth and sadness can and do exist often in the same moment is at the heart of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS. Every moment of the story is filled with conflicting emotions. The struggle to connect with someone - a friend, a coworker, a stranger - coupled with the anxiety of escaping to be alone with your own memories of what once was or what could never be hangs in the air, in the space between lines of dialogue, or lyrics in a song. Llewyn croons lonely ballads onstage; offstage, his only real companion is a cat. Neither seems like enough, both seem like far more than he can handle.
Llewyn's musical partner killed himself, leaving Llewyn failing to maintain his salary as a solo act. He can't pay rent so he crashes on his friends' couch, or invades their dinner parties. He's there out of necessity and they take him in for the same reasons. Life is complicated when you're still figuring it out. It doesn't always get better when you know what you're doing.
Folk music is born out of struggle. It embraces raw humanity and turns it into something transcendent. There are no individuals in folk music, only the common humanity that all of us share and yet few of us really understand. Perhaps what makes the music feel so timeless is its immediate familiarity - listen to a good folk song and you can be hit with a wave of nostalgia as if all the souls that went before you are suddenly reliving their lost memories inside your chest, even if you can't figure out where exactly those feelings are coming from. "If it was never new and it never gets old, it's a folk song."
Llewyn tries to articulate this but he fails to connect. His performance rings false, it doesn't quite have that raw urgency required to draw people in. The real irony is that Llewyn is more familiar with loss and hardship than his audience. His friend's wife may be pregnant with his baby and she wants an abortion. Then he learns his ex, who he thought had an abortion, kept the kid but didn't tell him. That was several years ago. Now his partner is gone and barely anybody even remembers he ever had one. He can't join a new group and risk replacing the only real friend he's ever had, but he also can't continue as a solo act. How can someone who can't even tell one cat from another manage to communicate what it's really like to feel what he feels when the audience already thinks they know more than him?
And so he carries on. What else is there to do? The Coen brothers, who have always had a profound sense of irony, look at Llewyn with the same depth of profundity that he looks at folk music. They don't judge him, they don't mock him, they don't hold him in contempt. They're just there, a friend, a companion, an audience. Someone to share space with, to offer a connection if it's needed, or to be alone with. This is their most personal film, a story about a man with a guitar. No additional adjectives are necessary.
A lot of people found this movie to be cold, too detached. I've given up trying to understand what "most people" think. The Coens have an uncanny ability, or call it a flair, to test their audiences by testing their limits on how far they are willing to follow a reprehensible character make worse and worse decisions. They are pranksters, always smirking from behind the camera as though they are in on something the rest of us may have missed out on. It's their way of approaching life, their way of dealing with the aforementioned loneliness of knowing that no matter how many people you surround yourself with you can still feel so isolated. At the same time, there's a solace in that, in knowing that and accepting it. That's the joke. Everyone is so busy trying to connect that nobody seems to have noticed how refreshing it is to be familiar with sadness. INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS inhabits the familiarity, embracing the echoes of the folk songs bouncing off of a silent crowd looking on with their own agenda, wondering how much longer they have to pretend to laugh at Llewyn's trivial efforts before the real show begins.
Credit must be given to Oscar Isaac who takes Llewyn, a character who deserves most of the rejection he receives, and finds his passion, his loss of it, and his desperate struggle to stay afloat without it. Isaac remains stoic when confronted but his eyes give it away, hinting just enough at he turmoil beneath the surface that must never be allowed to be seen by others.
The rest of the cast is up to the task. Everyone plays their part with equal sincerity.
By the time the movie begins coming to a close, I was wrapped up in a feeling of warmth and solidarity. It is both surprising and strangely expected of the Coen brothers to hit home at emotions like this. The movie, like folk music, and like life, exists as a series of paradoxes. Sadness and happiness. Goodbyes and hellos. Comfort and pain. Loneliness and community.