Inside Llewyn Davis makes you feel, without feeling.
This movie makes me feel like I’ve just spent an hour crying, but without making me shed a tear. It carves out a giant hole in my emotional psyche, leaving an empty void of feeling, and making me spend the rest of my day in a vulnerable, more emotionally worn state. But I don’t cry when I watch it. I don’t “feel sad,” necessarily. I feel the aftermath of feeling sad. That weird state of mind that you enter after you’ve cried, and the problem isn’t solved but you’re through the crying part? That’s what this movie does.
It does this because it is a tragic film on almost every level, with hardly anything good happening to its protagonist, the lovable curmudgeon Llewyn Davis, but it never really wallows in that tragedy. It’s just an undercurrent throughout the entire film, so when something invariably goes wrong for him, it’s never the last straw, the final blow that unleashes the pent up emotion: it’s just one more thing on a massive pile of things. It is this accumulating effect that causes it to build to its ultimate emotional impact: a hollowing. So numbed are they to the tragedy by the end, the viewer can hardly feel saddened by it. The thudding inevitably of every bad outcome has robbed you of the capacity to feel it acutely, and instead forces you to grapple with the aftermath.
There’s something in the almost dreamlike way the film drifts from event to event that makes this effect all the more moving. There’s not a clear structure to the film; conflicts come and go throughout, and the closest thing to an arch conflict that structures the whole film is the journey to and from Chicago. Even that, though, is a fairly self-contained moment with characters who don’t reappear and a resolution that doesn’t affect the rest of the film.
Beyond simply lacking a clear plot, the film seems to actively resist having such a plot. It’s suggested that Llewyn has fathered an illegitimate child through a series of miscommunications (and outright deceits); just when it seems that the film is about to take a hard right turn into exploring this (with this being literally expressed as Llewyn considering an interstate exit to the town where his child supposedly lives), it sails right on by that possibility and doesn’t revisit it.
This refusal to conform to simple plot structures makes the film feel like an extended dream sequence; Llewyn freewheels from event to event, just blowing in the wind without a clear direction home. It increasingly gives us the sensation that things happen to Llewyn, rather than happening because of Llewyn. That’s deliberate: the Coen brothers have crafted a film all about the way that the world can chew people up and spit them out, putting them through a grinder of hardship without any respite. Sure, a great part of Llewyn’s suffering is because he’s kind of unlikable, a stubborn grump who scowls at everyone and shouts at his friends over dinner because they want him to play a song. He’s rarely wrong in what he’s saying, but it’s always hard to be on board with his attitude.
But he’s still our protagonist, and the film goes to great pains to make sure we don’t hate him. That he’s usually right when he complains does a lot for this: we’re not a fan of him snapping at the Gorefeins, but he’s absolutely right about the idea that music is his job, and it’s not the kind of thing that other people should be able to coax him into parading around. It’s a complex, intricate character that pushes away while pulling us in, and Oscar Isaac’s performance walks that line flawlessly.
Adding to this whole dreamlike vibe is the aesthetic of the film. Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie so beautiful that I stole its visual style for my thesis film. I never needed to have this type of conversation with my cinematographer, but if I did, I would have told her “see this? Yeah, do that. Just that.” The whole film is awash in this soft, blooming light that hangs over every frame like an ethereal mist. The colors are muted, drained of vibrancy and joy. It’s winter, filtered through a hopeless lens. The effect is often unsettling, but inarguably beautiful. When in the spotlight of a stage, people seem to glow with an angelic aura (even Llewyn does this, especially in a haunting opening shot of him performing on stage as all light around him fades to black, giving the impression of him playing in a room entirely dark other than the spotlight on him).
It’s a beautiful, soulful film that makes you feel without feeling. Why is it on this list?
I am, against my better wishes, a bit of a pessimist (to the point that I originally wrote that as “realist” before actually thinking about it). I went to film school, and learned how to make movies, and maybe got to be pretty decent at it. Who knows? But regardless, I am cursed with an outlook that I probably won’t be able to make it professionally. At least, not at the lofty heights I would want to. There are plenty of people who want to make movies, and plenty of people far more talented than I am who want to do it.
Those people will be the Robert Allen Zimmermans of the film world. Those people will be the ones who, like the young Bob Dylan at the end of the film, get plucked out of Llewyn Davis’ world and turned into a success. Me? I’d be Llewyn Davis. Probably carving out a living, somehow. But forever repeating that existence, getting nowhere.
This film sort of puts to bed the idea that there’s grace and nobility to that ideal of the starving artist. There isn’t; it sucks. Even though I know he’d roll his eyes and push me away, I want to give Llewyn Davis a big hug. Because I know how little separates him from me.
I love Llewyn Davis, even though he’s a jerk. I love Inside Llewyn Davis for giving him to me.