Talking, quite a few years ago, about his high regard for horror movies, Martin Scorsese allowed that he "like[d] Mario Bava's films very much: hardly any story, just atmosphere, with all that fog and ladies walking down corridors." Now it would be inaccurate to characterize Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis as having "hardly any story;" in point of fact, it's got story coming and going, and I mean that literally. But the real story is told in implications and inferences; the lead character is mostly seen dealing with the consequences of irresponsible and/or out and out bad behavior (the one instance in which he's depicted acting inexcusable is, while inexcusable, at least understandable, and it doesn't occur until near the movie's end), and what we generally refer to as "plot" doesn't "function" in this movie. A little ironically, given its title, Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie in which atmosphere does almost all of the important work. And that atmosphere is chilly: bare trees, near-empty streets, cloudy breath, gray skies and grayer roadways. Everyone in the movie has a sallow complexion, except for Carey Mulligan's Jean, who's so milkily luminescent that she could in fact be a ghost.
The Coen's vision of the burgeoning folk scene in Manhattan of 1961 hasn't got a single hint of A Mighty Wind and not all that much of the redolence of the Coen's own O Brother Where Art Thou. Even when the title protagonist is depicted being roped into joining a trio cutting a folk-novelty stinker under the aegis of a Columbia record exec (Ian Jarvis) who's pretty plainly styled after John Hammond, the movie studiously avoids pastiche. The authenticity-in-art bugaboo was particularly pronounced, of course, during the real period depicted here, but the Coens never address it head on, and it's to the movie's credit that it contains no heated debates about "real" folk music. Instead, it depicts Llewyn, still too young to have earned the "journeyman" tag, scrupulously if not stubbornly hoeing his own roe row, which happens to be an old-school one, and learning in increments that he's never going to get anywhere by doing so.
At the press conference after the New York Film Festival screening, the directors were asked, not for the first time, why they make movies about "failures," and Joel Coen replied, not in a particularly sarcastic way, that "all the movies about successes have been done." The thing about Llewyn, who's played with spectacular understatement with Oscar Isaac, is that he's not depicted as particularly having it coming. He is hardly untalented. And he's not a pompous blowhard like the Coen's Barton Fink; when he makes a slight balk at the aforementioned novelty song (an anti-space-travel ditty called "Please Please Mr. Kennedy" that's all the more, um, humorous for protesting against rockets while Vietnam is just around the corner), he's not strictly wrong, and he does back off when he realizes that he's insulted the actual author of the tune. And, yes, he does get the wife of a friend pregnant, and yes, he's screwed up that way before. He's irresponsible, but not glibly so, and his adventures with a friend's cat that he feels obligated to look after because it slips out of a door he's held open provide a parable that's a terribly sad reflection of not just the character but of his circumstances.
This is a genuinely glum movie, for as many comic scenes as it contains (although when you get right down to it, it does not contain a huge number of them; most of the characters maintain an undertow of sardonicism via dialogue however). "As one day fades into another/as the past gets filled up with failure," goes a lyric by David Thomas' Pere Ubu; Llewyn's past is filled not just with failure but with genuine tragedy. He's grieving, and not just for his non-thriving career. And with every step he takes, he fails again. During a disastrous road trip to Chicago, he's bedeviled by a malevolent jazzbo (John Goodman) who threatens him with voodoo he learned from Chano Pozo (nice reference) after Llewyn has the temerity to bite back at the man mountain's litany of insults. Goodman's character is grotesquely revealed to have feet of clay, but this provides Llewyn with little satisfaction; and after he separates himself from the man, and his Beat-Generation-boy-toy "valet" (Garrett Hedlund), he promptly soaks his left foot in a snowy puddle. Sipping coffee at a diner counter, he keeps taking his foot out of his soaked shoe and pressing it against the footrest, trying to squeeze some of the cold cold water out of it. This shot struck me as a central image, a numinous one even, central to the movie's wintry poetry. Granted, given recent events in my own life, it's entirely possible that I'm unusually receptive to a movie in which the central character sits in a public toilet stall and is a little unpleasantly stunned to see this graffiti text carved into the paint on the wall that holds the toilet paper: "What Are You Doing."
And for all that, and despite the ever-so-slightly on-the-nose evocation of a world historical cultural phenomenon at the movie's end, Inside Llewyn Davis is an entirely exhilarating experience. I'm quite eager to see it again.