By Joan Ellis
Don’t ever ask the Coen brothers about the particulars of one of their movies.
All of them are filled with dangling details – small sights, conversations and sounds laid on with great care that disappear without explanation.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” (Rated R) is full of these and yet they add to the atmosphere, and the atmosphere, trust me, is an important character in this typically dark and good movie.
We are introduced to Llewyn Davis, folksinger, (Oscar Isaac) as he sings a lovely ballad in The Gaslight Café, Greenwich Village, 1961. The modern folk movement took root in this time and place while itinerant folksingers hung out in small cafes singing songs about injustice. As the decade wore on, many of them became household names and their singing became a musical focus for a generation protesting war.
Llewyn Davis was not one of them. The Coen brothers have chosen to explore the character of a folk singer who never made it. In this shrewd emotional dissection we learn that Davis is not a loser without talent. He has a lovely quiet voice but is unable, or unwilling, to look inside to discover what parts of himself might carry him where he wants to go.
Llewyn borrows money, begs a couch from this friend or that, and moves through his days in a mode of slow motion reluctance.
If we can’t see his indolence for ourselves, his friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) is there to tell us all about it.
In a kind of tepid determination to test his talent, he hitchhikes to Chicago in one of the least enviable journeys you will ever see. Playing for the Chicago agent who could send him on his way, he fizzles and the agent pronounces sentence, “I don’t see any money here.”
Throughout the movie the Coens use a running metaphor involving an orange cat to chart Llewyn’s trajectory. When the discouraged folksinger uses a friend’s apartment for a night, he lets the cat escape by mistake. Driven by an uncharacteristic sense of responsibility, he chases, catches and cares for the cat. That obligation is why the cat ends up as a passenger on Llewyn’s shoulder on the trip to Chicago – until in one telling moment, the hitchhiker can no longer handle either his duty to the cat or to the now comatose driver who gave him a ride. At that point, a dark movie grows darker.
Because listening to Llewyn in The Gaslight was so pleasant, we were rooting for him to break out as so many did during the early ‘60s from exactly that neighborhood. But this is a Coen Brothers movie. Llewyn never once exhibits joy or even mild pleasure in his music, his friends or his surroundings. He shows not the tiniest spark that might morph into contagious appeal for his audiences.
The Coens have shown us precisely what’s “Inside Llewyn Davis” and it’s not nearly enough to lift him out of The Gaslight Café.