The Coen brothers' first film in three years is a tricky piece. Because of their collaboration with T-Bone Burnett and an invocation of the Odyssey, it might seem closely related to O Brother Where Art Thou, but its closest kin in the Coen filmography is really Barton Fink. Set in 1961, it explicitly offers the Disney animal adventure The Incredible Journey as a cinematic reference point, but when I think of a cat lost in New York City in 1961 I think Breakfast at Tiffany's, and there's probably more room for illuminating comparisons in that direction. The title itself is deceptive, as is, presumably, the title character's record album of the same name, since we never truly get inside Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) and may leave the theater thinking there'd be nothing there if we got inside. The picture's a period piece with little appeal to nostalgia; since the subject is folk music and some of Davis's songs were created for this movie, we don't hear the usual pop tunes that define the decade if not the particular year. It doesn't seem to be about 1961 or the folk music scene on the brink of Dylan's emergence. Instead, it's about failure and frustration, if not a will to failure or self-frustration, but Davis must have enough talent to keep the film from becoming the wrong kind of comedy. That makes his failures as an entertainer and a person more mysterious, if not more tragic, but the Coens give us no Rosebud to account for them. That's only fair, since it's not as if these are problems only Davis can have or get.
We know his weakness; Llewyn doesn't "connect with people" the way some of his rivals do. But that begs more questions. How much of his dysfunction have to do with the suicide of his singing partner, for instance? But the Coens resist the temptation to show that person in flashback, and we never learn why he jumped off the George Washington Bridge. How much of Llewyn's conflicted attitude toward music, not to mention his sometimes-horrifying irresponsibility, has to do with his relationship with his father? He seems to resent having to play music, treating performance as an onerous job, while the only time he performs unbidden, or not for money, is when he visits his father in a nursing home. Llewyn reminds his dad that he'd always liked the particular song he plays, but the Coens undermine the sentiment of the moment by having the father soil himself in apparent response to the music. The brothers strive to maintain a comic tone, and some bits like the song "Please Mr. Kennedy" are hilarous, yet Inside Llewyn Davis is in some ways their darkest film. Davis is definitely their most unlovable protagonist. He is contemptibly irresponsible, reaching bottom when he abandons a dying or dead John Goodman and a live cat in a car on the highway on a wintry night. Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography is at its best and bleakest as Davis quits the car and hitchikes for Chicago, and later, when Davis fears he may have hit the same cat with another car on the return trip to New York. These are dark nights for Davis's soul, or what passes for it, and Oscar Isaac conveys convincingly both the character's moral agony and his inability to do anything about it -- both feelings compounded by his recent refusal to take the exit into Akron to find a child he'd only just found out about, the result of an aborted abortion.
Llewyn Davis is alienated to an extent fatal to whatever artistic ambition he has, but I don't think the Coens mean to say that this alienation is his crucial flaw. They may mean to show that such alienation and ambivalence is close to the surface of many artists, not just the failures -- their own reputation for misanthropy is probably relevant here, and for some Inside Llewyn Davis will only reconfirm that reputation. But Llewyn Davis rings too true as a type to be dismissed as a misanthropic caricature, though some of the supporting cast may seem like more typical Coen caricatures, and the most disquieting thing about the movie is the extent to which we find ourselves empathizing with this apparently repulsive person as everything goes wrong for him. He may seem exceptionally rotten in may respects, but let's face it: sabotaging one's own ambitions, perhaps misunderstanding them in the first place and failing to become famous are not exceptional at all.