The Coen brothers have been taken for granted as a single entity for over 30 years (officially so for the last decade, since the Directors Guild of America permitted them to share screen credit on The Ladykillers), to the point that it’s a shock to the system to be reminded that they in fact possess two brains, not one. But it might be fruitful to acknowledge the duo’s penchant for pursuing, with the same energy and dedication, multiple, conflicting impulses across the same career, even within the confines of a single film.
Inside Llewyn Davis, which tracks the movements of a fringe-dwelling folk singer in and out of the Greenwich Village music scene of the early 1960s, makes the need for considering the Coens’ dual-mindedness almost compulsory, and indeed may prompt a retrospective meditation on how diverging strategies have contributed to their estimable body of work. It’s sorely tempting to project upon the brothers a division of labor: one handles the real, and the other the surreal.
At first distinguished by their (usually dark) comedic sensibilities, the Coens began scaling back their tendency toward exaggeration around the time they made Fargo, which arrived not long after what arguably remains their most ostentatious fantasy, The Hudsucker Proxy. But their caricaturist skills never went away (they were, perhaps, never even reduced), seeping instead into the groundwater, emerging saturated in the fabric, colors that would not be diluted from their palette.
Inside Llewyn Davis, seeming almost to be steadfastly modest in ambition, arrives at its modesty through such plainly strenuous labor and forethought that you wouldn’t be blamed if you thought the Coens had spent the last 30 years not just planning it, but also planning to misdirect you into thinking it isn’t much of a film, that there’s nothing much to see. Its duality in construction assures a polished opacity. On one hand, the film is a simulacrum of America, in the winter of 1961. Perfectly rendered verisimilitude is manifest in every detail, from cars, decor, and dress to the probable turns of phrase in the dialogue, as well as the behavior of individuals and groups (such as the refined, hushed-library outrage of Gaslight patrons when Oscar Isacc’s Llewyn Davis berates a performer).
On the other hand, the film’s illusion of ultra-realism is tempered by a propensity toward exaggeration that somehow manages to amplify faces, sights, and behaviors in a way that not only doesn’t counteract the realist mode, but works with it, in tandem. As complicated as memory, and as corrupt as nostalgia, Inside Llewyn Davis, which places a premium on historical fidelity unprecedented in the Coens’ filmography (no small feat, considering the likes of A Serious Man and others) produces for the viewer sensations that don’t just address “what it was like,” but “what it felt like”—affidavit and lyrical reflection somehow entangled and inseparable.
An oppositional pair, each that ought to annihilate the other, coexisting without paradox—a condition only really possible in art. Llewyn recites a sentiment along those lines, after his musical performance of “I’ve Been All Around This World,” which opens the film: “If it was never new, and it never gets old, it’s a folk song.” Shortly after, the story will hiccup, dissolve out, and begin again, ensuring that, after the pattern of Llewyn’s aphorism, his narrative never began, and will never end. A false circle, it will cover distance and time, his choices prompted by happenstance and serial misfortune.
And his journey will be enhanced by the Coens’ use of caricature, on which they sometimes lean hard, and, at others, soft-pedal. As always, the Coens find plenty to laugh at, in humanity, in America, and (under these circumstances) around the New York folk scene. But if Llewyn is their surrogate, and ours, that knife cuts both ways. Broadness has, by now, become for the Coens a tool not just to amuse or infuriate the viewer, but a method for illustrating experiential reality, the unintended dissonance that separates the person we thought we put into the world, and the one that others actually see and hear. And the latter is always a little louder, a little more mealy-mouthed, a little drunker, a little more abrasive, than we intended.
Davis’s privileged station as the story’s protagonist doesn’t spare him the Coens’ magnifying glass. Davis is gifted with musical talent, intelligent, equipped with enough of the social niceties to muddle through most social situations, and with enough instinct to read his way out of them once he spies the exit; the Coens may put him through no small end of trouble, but they don’t make him their dunking clown. In short, he’s a fool, but he’s no dummy.
A more on-the-nose title might be Llewyn Davis, Outside, for, though we might correctly infer what’s going on in Llewyn’s mind throughout most of the film, he’s a noble gas of a human being, letting nothing in, eternally failing or refusing to integrate—or, in chemistry language, to react—even to the scene of his habitation. (He’s incapable of being comfortable in his comfort zone.) Inside Llewyn Davis suggests subtly, but insistently, that history passes across Davis like water over tiles: In the final minutes, he exits the Gaslight while an unmistakable facsimile of Bob Dylan begins to perform, glimpsed through the smoke and the crowd.
That’s a Forrest Gump-sized feint, but on his trip to Chicago, his companions (played by John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund) suggest via their own broken monologues worlds of their own. The almost autistically taciturn Johhny Five (Hedlund), after five hundred or more miles have passed beneath them, begins to groan to life like an ancient engine, revealing through cryptic fragments his former associations with queer writers and artists. Last seen being poured into the backseat of a squad car after his animosity toward a highway patrolman goes quickly awry, Johnny Five straddles the middle ground between Kerouac and Stonewall—yet another set of spheres that, given a chance, would exclude Llewyn with Venn-diagram ruthlessness. Cursed to wander the wastes eternally with a cat on one arm and a guitar case on the other, he’s a real nowhere man.
Shot on 35mm film by the extraordinary French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis is a beautiful but strange-looking film. Scenes resolve upon pools of warm light and cold, Delbonnel’s palette a broad spectrum of otherworldly hues that call to mind, of all points of reference, David Fincher’s Zodiac. Criterion’s 4K high-definition digital transfer will allow viewers an experience of almost unnerving fidelity—probably superior to the average multiplex projection. It isn’t just the sharpness of Inside Llewyn Davis that will appear true on your HD set, it’s the accuracy of its eerie, bitter softness, replicating a lost time that’s slipping through the grasp of its sad-sack hero, even as he experiences its present. In short, Criterion’s championship performance isn’t just a matter of machine-tooled precision; a second-rate transfer would have been no better than a gash in the film’s fabric.
Much of it taking place in pre-dawn hush or at blasphemously late hours, Inside Llewyn Davis’s sound field is often one of insidious quiet when performers aren’t performing, and when they are, their acts are amplified out of the mid-range to create an effect that’s both beautiful yet surgically isolated; pieces that require ensemble and togetherness ("Please, Mr. Kennedy" and "A Hundred Miles") are often subverted by divisiveness and strife between characters. The immersive 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio surround mix is brilliantly moderated on the Criterion disc, in keeping with the even-handed rise and fall in the decibel level of this, the most somber of the Coens’ hybrid musicals.
By all available accounts, the Coens are no more fans of folk music than you or I. Having said that, one doesn’t measure Inside Llewyn Davis for its affection toward folk music, but for the authenticity and depth of knowledge required to produce the kind of period simulacrum that looks and feels like a window into its time. Not unexpectedly, the supplements on this disc are the encyclopedic iceberg to the film’s tip. They’ll require at least half a day to consume, and your time will be repaid in weight.
Dive in first and most comfortably with Guillermo Del Toro’s chat with the Coens. The Pan’s Labyrinth director is justly celebrated for his macabre visions, but he’s also grounded by his enthusiastic cinephilia and broad knowledge, making him a strong interviewer, probing, curious, but never star-struck by his esteemed colleagues. The interview covers an expansive 43 minutes, and it’s an informative pleasure, stabilized by mutual respect.
Filling out the roster of extras are smaller morsels, like a shorter talk between the Coens and legendary musician-advisor T Bone Burnett. Some unnecessary animation hampers one’s enjoyment of this featurette, but it’s not lethal. Tipping the weight of the stack are two of the disc’s crown jewels. First, the commentary track, featuring three voices: David Hajdu, Sean Wilentz, and Robert Christgau. The three writers offer not only history and background, but learned critique. (Longtime followers of Christgau’s music criticism will be gratified to hear his robust speaking voice.) Second is "Another Day, Another Time," a full-length concert film capturing a tribute show inspired by Inside Llewyn Davis. It could be "for fans only," but you’ll either watch two minutes or you’ll watch it twice.
I don’t see a lot of money here, only a risk-taking period musical that we may be processing for years to come. Likewise, the Criterion Collection’s heavyweight disc is a major release for the label that may pass through the market square without much fanfare. Don’t be a Llewyn Davis and recognize when something’s good for your head, and good for your gut.