Mining their own askew, often bleak outlook on life and channeling Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken," Joel and Ethan Coen have given us, in "Inside Llewyn Davis," a powerful and darkly comic meditation on the duality of life and the paths we choose along the way. In doing so, they've delivered perhaps the best narrative feature of 2013 — the film opened in limited release in late December — one that's second only to "Fargo" in their remarkable repertoire.
Inspired by folk singer Dave Van Ronk — and featuring haunting renditions of "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" and other traditional tunes he covered — the Coens' latest flick lacks a traditional narrative structure but is content to meander in a melancholy, oddly beautiful and sometimes circular way, as are its characters. It's simply the story of a few days in the life of Llewyn Davis, a fictional 1960s New York City folksinger struggling to cope with his disappointing career and the world he seems reluctant to be a part of.
Llewyn is played perfectly by relative newcomer Oscar Isaac, who, like almost all the other actors, sings the established songs live and in one take, infusing the movie with a mesmerizing naturalism. Yes, the Coens have featured music prominently in their past films, especially "O Brother, Where Art Thou?", but never like this, and the credit should go to musical director T. Bone Burnett and the actors/singers, including Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan. In non-musical but no less memorable turns are F. Murray Abraham as a music producer and Coen regular John Goodman as a traveling companion whose surreal rant about the digestive perils of Welsh rarebit is another gem in the directors' comedy pantheon.
Despite the masterful music and mirth, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is most delicious when it's dark. "Everything you touch turns to shit, like King Midas's idiot brother," Llewyn's sometimes-lover (Mulligan) spouts at him. And, tragically, she's right, because though Llewyn can't always see it, his tale is one of wrong turns and what-ifs. Even the cats he befriends become symbols of life's duality, a "Tale of Two Kitties," if you will, with one feline experiencing the best of times, the other the worst — but both ultimately harmed by their association with Llewyn.
One of the oddest moments comes when Llewyn, in a ships-passing-in-the-night scene, is presented with an opportunity, during an ill-fated trip to Chicago, to make amends with a lost love. He balks, choosing to "travel unknown and unnoticed," as Bob Dylan sang. Yet, in a "Sliding Doors" touch, we see a similar car take the highway exit that might have led to an emotional payoff. Perhaps in a parallel universe, Llewyn did steer his soul down that more fulfilling road instead of charting a course of missed moments. Still, those mistakes make great fodder for folk music and film.
Maybe the film's greatest achievement is that it feels both instantly recognizable and impossible to forget, not dissimilar to the music that inspired it. For as Llewyn says, "It's never new, and it never gets old; it's a folk song."