Inside Llewyn Davis feels like a meta-Coens film.
This needs some explaining, since the Coens have always made movies that are in part about movies – making their films a kind of meta-cinema that is about cinema and its influence on society (especially characters who go getting hair-brained scam ideas and who think it’ll work out as per the movies, but for whom things typically go amusingly wrong).
Inside Llewyn Davis, on the other hand, is not just meta-cinematic, but it feels meta-Coen-like. That is, it surveys and reviews Coen films from the past.
Small signs thereof: a cat that we discover latterly is called Ulysses, recalling O Brother, Where Art Thou? (UK/France/USA, 2000), a John Goodman performance that is straight out of The Big Lebowski (USA/UK, 1998), a long, silent car journey as per Fargo (USA/UK, 1996), and the general suffering of a central character that was crystallised by the Coens in their Job film, A Serious Man (USA/UK/France, 2009).
This does not make Inside Llewyn Davis a tired film. On the contrary, it is as ever a pleasant trip into Coenland, as we follow singer Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) from Greenwich Village to Chicago and back again for a week in 1961, surveying the folk music scene of the time (with a hilarious performance from Justin Timberlake as nice guy singer Jim).
Now, the Coens are not exactly without success, having won four Oscars between them, and having been nominated for various more. But Inside Llewyn Davis also seems like something of artistic statement from them.
By which I mean to say, the self-referentiality of the film leads the viewer to suspect that this is quite a personal project for them. Not personal in the sense that it is autobiographical (though I suppose elements of the film could be – not that I am interested/think it important to find out).
Rather, in the sense that the Coens may, like Llewyn, find themselves never quite seeming to make it, unwilling to sell out (except for Intolerable Cruelty, USA, 2003, and The Ladykillers, USA, 2004 – the equivalent of Llewyn’s singing with Jim?), and somewhat on the margins of the film industry in spite of some success (notably, even after the success of No Country for Old Men, USA, 2007, the Coens have had to return abroad – to France and the UK – in order to co-fund their projects).
It is striking that the film is really about Llewyn’s inability to move on from the death of his singing partner, Mike, whom we never see. Llewyn performs repeatedly in the film – and often very well. But his style, while appreciated, is not deemed commercially viable. And, indeed, he is told by those who do not know that Mike is dead that he should find a partner and/or team back up with him.
This is striking, because of course the Coens work as a pair, and yet neither has – and long may it be before such an event comes to pass – has passed away as of yet. And yet there is a sense that while the Coens, like Llewyn, put in some remarkable performances (including winning Oscars), they remain somewhat overlooked – perhaps like Llewyn they feel surrounded by mediocrity, and it is not that they are any better per se, but they are surprised about how everyone settles for mediocrity.
Except that Llewyn ends up playing the same old tracks the whole time – trapped as he is inside himself, as it were. For this reason, the film has a looping structure, which it is not too much of a spoiler to say.
Do the Coens also feel trapped in their own universe? Were it not for the self-referentiality, I would not feel at all inclined to read Inside Llewyn Davis in this way. But it does seem to be working there somewhere under the surface – like Llewyn himself, very honest, but deeply enigmatic for almost precisely the same reason.
It is a joyful journey through Coenland. But Inside Llewyn Davis also seems to be calling out, asking for something more. Maybe the Coens will go really crazy with their next project. Or maybe they are mourning the loss of something dear to them, and which keeps them stuck in Coenland, pleasant though it is to be there with them…