The peculiar qualities and charms of any particular movie by Joel and Ethan Coen are hard to articulate, and generalizing about the brothers' catalog as a whole is more difficult still. If I were to attempt to list some common threads in their extraordinary and extraordinarily varied body of work—and, rest assured, I'm not going to seriously attempt it here—I suspect there are a few themes and tropes that would suggest themselves. An attraction to shambling, shaggy-dog narratives? A skewed, stylized aesthetic and humor? An affectionate sympathy for flawed human beings, and particularly for the moments when those flaws lead them into confrontation with spiraling consequences, and colliding codes, and the sometimes surreal machinations of fate?
No, I'm not going to attempt to generalize, and that's clearly for the best. The Coen Brothers are American originals, and their films are mostly alike in their unclassifiability: no two are quite the same, and yet no one of them could have come from any other creators. If pressed, I'd say their chief signature as filmmakers is vision. It is never the same vision from one film to the next, but at their frequent best the Coens display an absolute mastery of tone and touch that lend each of the cinematic worlds they create a unique, unified integrity that may be unparalleled in American cinema. The world in which The Big Lebowski takes place is not the same world as the one in which Fargo takes place, which is a very different setting from that of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which shares few of the laws and markings of the lands where we experience Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, or No Country for Old Men.
It's not just a question of setting and milieu: it's a vision for how the world works. Entering any Coen Brothers film, you're not just buying a story, you're buying the tenets of reality. Raising Arizona, for example,is a live-action cartoon, operating on cartoon physics; Barton Fink is a Kafkaesque nightmare in which nothing can possible go right; The Hudsucker Proxy is a Capraesque fable in which the universe is so kind that nothing can go terribly wrong; and in No Country for Old Men the universe seems coldly indifferent to questions of right and wrong. What each of these parallel worlds has in common is its own self-contained vision, a fully realized re-conceptualizing of reality in which life operates according to certain aesthetics, logics, rhythms, and rules.
And—though any particular viewer might find one of these visions harder to accept than another—I wouldn't have it any other way. The idea of the Coen Brothers spending their entire thirty-years-and-counting career making films in the exact same tone and tenor as Raising Arizona, for example, would be depressing and tragic. (We can all name very talented directors who only seem to have one vision, which they keep repeating in minor variations.) The Coens are not one-trick ponies, but gifted world-builders, and I want them to go on crafting different realities we can visit—even if, occasionally, they may show us some place we wouldn't necessarily want to live.
I suppose the reason I'm thinking about all of this today is that I suspect some filmgoers—and even some hardcore Coen Brothers fans—may find the world of Inside Llewyn Davis a bit underwhelming, or even unwelcoming. It is a different kind of film for them, and in some ways a more depressing one. Compared to most of their films, Inside Llewyn Davis finds the brothers working in a more muted palate—aesthetically and emotionally—and (to mix my artistic metaphors shamelessly), in a slower, more relaxed tempo. It is less "wacky," less "quirky," less aggressively outrageous and obviously surreal. Still recognizably a Coen Brothers movie, it is, like many of their works, a shaggy dog story that spreads and meanders and wanders back over its own path, but there are fewer over-the-top incidents and brightly colored characters to punctuate the journey. It is at times a funny film, but not uproariously: the humor rises naturally from situation and character, organic and effortless. A lot "happens" to the eponymous protagonist, and he meets a great many interesting characters drawn with the same humanistic care that marks all of the Coens' work, but it all feels smaller, less stylized, less creatively plotted than the films that hinge on a crazy scheme, or a terrible crime, or a major quest that spirals into escapades.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a quiet character study, not a caper, and nothing here is larger than life: it is all life-sized, and life-shaped, and sadly, sometimes painfully human. To some, these qualities may make the film a disappointment, or at best a minor work in the Coens' canon. To me, these qualities make it one of their most mature and masterful films so far, and one of the best American movies in recent years.
Their gift for reality building makes the Coens particularly adept at period work, and Inside Llewyn Davis is a textbook example of how to create an era-specific setting that does not feel like a pastiche or a theme-park. With gorgeous, melancholy cinematography by first-time Coen collaborator Bruno Delbonnel (Amalie, Across the Universe), the film captures a sense of time and place—in this case, the folk music scene of Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961—while still feeling timeless: we are not confronted with period detail and cultural markers, they are just perfectly there for us to luxuriate in naturally. Every shot of Inside Llewyn Davis feels—quite deliberately, and quite effectively—like being inside an early Dylan album cover.
Llewyn Davis (a fantastic Oscar Isaac) is a folksinger, struggling to get by in the Greenwich Village scene in the winter of 1961. I would say he's "down on his luck," but everything about the way Isaacs inhabits this character tells us two things: that he has never known fortunes much better than these, and that the shapeless shamble his life has become probably has very little to do with luck. Angry, weary, and infuriating, Llewyn is an aggressively unlovable man who nonetheless relies on the kindness of strangers and friends, mooching his way around the Village by crashing on one sofa after another. His desperation brings him into contact with a variety of interesting but grounded characters, from a coupled duo of folksingers (Carrie Mulligan and Justin Timberlake), to an up-and-coming soldier-singer (Stark Sands), to a wealthy Upper-West-Side couple (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett) who think it's charming to have a troubadour friend to perform at dinner parties. Llewyn works his way through his list of reluctant patrons by going to whichever of them he has offended least recently, beginning each request for a favor with an apology for how he behaved last time.
However—as is comically represented by a series of increasingly claustrophobic hallways and doorways—his options are getting narrower by the day. The kind of guy who will impregnate a friend's wife, and then try to borrow money from that same friend to pay for the needed abortion, he's burned just about every bridge he's ever crossed.
Llewyn is running out of patience with his career, and running out of patience with himself. Previously a member of a not-particularly-successful singing duo, Llewyn is now struggling to make it as a solo artist, and his former partner becomes the absent-presence that haunts both Llewyn and the film."I miss Mike," his friend (and illicit lover) Jean (Mulligan) says, out of nowhere, in the middle of one fight with Llewyn, and throughout the film constant reminders of the absent Mike become part of the cloud that threatens to engulf Llewyn's life. That we learn very little about Mike, or their partnership, or even how Llewyn feels about it doesn't matter: we understand that Mike may have been Llewyn's better half, the thing that made aspects of his life—his career, his friendships, his own sense of identity—work. Now, Llewyn is a man untethered, adrift and aimless with only himself for poor company.
As I've said, the Coens love a shaggy-dog story, and Inside Llewyn Davis is one of their shaggiest: over the course of several days Llewyn wanders New York—often in search of a friend's cat he's carelessly lost—and takes a short but fateful roadtrip to Chicago in the company of an old jazz musician (John Goodman) and his majordomo (Garrett Hedlund). The film doesn't lack for incident, but nothing much happens—at least as we're accustomed to seeing things happen in movies—and the film ends almost precisely where it began. There are very few major events along the way, just a series of minor ones; Llewyn has no world-shaking revelations, just an accumulation of brief encounters, and quiet disappointments, and sad confrontations with the limitations of his own talent and character.
For some viewers, I suspect, the small scale of this story will be the failing of Inside Llewyn Davis; for me, it is the film's triumph. "What is incident but the illustration of character?" Henry James once wrote, and here the point of the journey the Coens take us on seems almost wholly to be to illustrate this man, through a series of small incidents, to us and to himself. Where lesser writers would have given us life-changing events and revelatory speeches about what is "inside Llewyn Davis," the Coens create a series of acute, devastating moments that perfectly and precisely reveal what sort of man he is. Tiny, perfectly weighted acts—the closing of a car door, the silent choice to drive past a certain highway off-ramp—carry the impact and import of tragedy, and through tacit accumulation create an existential crisis that Llewyn himself would be unable to articulate.
None of it would work, of course, without a lead actor able to carry this largely internal drama, but Oscar Isaac—who appears in every scene of the movie, and in almost every frame—gives one of the best performances of the year in what should be a star-making turn. Llewyn is a character who seems to have only two modes of outward expression—sarcasm and rage—but who never seems more honest and authentic than when he is silent, channeling his anger and frustration inwards, where it belongs, on himself. It is on Davis's face, and in his carriage, that all the real character work is being done, and it's tremendous: this is the perfect marriage of a character written largely in emotional subtext with an actor capable of embodying that subtext wholly.
I said Llewyn only has two modes of outward expression, but of course there's a third: his music. Arranged by T Bone Burnett—who also collaborated with the Coens on the Grammy-winning soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?—the music of Inside Llewyn Davis is another of the stars of the film, and the essential source of joy and hope in an otherwise doleful, melancholy film. Davis performs the songs himself—demonstrating both an impressive skill with a guitar and a strong tenor voice—and as we watch him play we understand why Llewyn sticks with this life, in spite of all the disappointments, failures, and struggles. Though the film is—again—blessedly free of overt pontification about the power of music, we see that all the sweetness, sincerity, and emotional clarity that is absent in the rest of Llewyn's life comes out the moment he picks up a guitar. (In one of the film's best scenes, he sits in on a studio session to record a goofy novelty song, and—despite his disdain for this piece of commercial fluff—we watch him get caught up in the sheer joy of performance.) The film ends where it began, with Llewyn's beautiful performance of the folk standard "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," and in this inevitable symmetry we understand that everything Llewyn goes through will bring him back here, to the simple truth and simple joy of a song. He may never be great, and he may never be a success, but that's not what it's ultimately all about: it's about the fleeting moments of emotional clarity, the transient pleasures of creation and connection, the edifying purity of doing what you're meant to do.
These are truths the Coen Brothers know well, and pleasures they continue to provide, and it is unthinkable to imagine them ever stopping. I've heard this latest film referred to as a "downer," and—though I didn't find it such—perhaps it is. As such, perhaps, it will not be the Coens' most popular film, and it may not be their most acclaimed. But what does that matter? As the mature, stunning Inside Llewyn Davis makes clear to us—if not to Llewyn himself—it's the art that matters, not the rewards or acclaim. And, like Llewyn's music, it reminds us that even the most depressing work of art—executed well, with honesty and integrity and care—can't help but carry within it the transcendence of hope.