Inside Llewyn Davis will not cheer you up. If you find yourself in low spirits, seeking distraction, you would be smart to exercise caution: this Coen brothers’ movie may be a poor use of your Friday night.
Painted with desaturated colors, the film looks icy. The story is colder still. In his review in The New Yorker, Anthony Lane calls Llewyn Davis a semiprecious stone. Talented, but lacking genius. On screen, we see a collection of Llewyn’s minor failures which, from our seats in the theater, coalesce into a portrait of despair, like points in a Seurat. Llewyn is driven by his vanity, by his misplaced confidence. His approach to the world is careless, yet he feels put-upon — in his mind, his foolishness must seem like some kind of wisdom.
The movie is structured as a loop, like the action of a record. Llewyn’s personality is a groove. He cycles through his life, trapped by his own self-image. His poor choices gradually topple his pride, if not his arrogance. Death by a thousand cuts. There is a scene toward the end of the film which hints that Llewyn is capable of learning from his mistakes, but it feels hopelessly small. Llewyn has made his bed.
The thing that redeems him is his music. A semiprecious stone, yes, but when he picks up his guitar and sings, he is transformed into something worth caring about. Beneath the hard, sad story of Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers have something nice to say about people, Llewyn included. We live in a squalor of our own making, yet are capable of creating beauty that transcends our messy lives. Art — made for pleasure, for prestige or even just for money — is our saving grace. This is a comforting idea in an otherwise bleak film.