At the outset, it’s the word “Inside” that troubles me. I don’t think of Joel and Ethan Coen delivering “inside” jobs or emotional profundity. I’m not even sure the movies have a natural aptitude for those things. This may sound obvious, but cameras photograph exteriors, appearances, the look on a face. Sometimes the situation, the face, and the talk are good enough for us to gain a strong idea of what the person is thinking and feeling. So Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) in Fargo is tight-lipped, dogged, and full of a placid moral hostility to a lot of what she sees, without ever feeling the need to spell that out or save the world. Being a policewoman has determined her life and left scant room for debate. We get inside Marge only to find her content to be neutral, conservative, and settled. Her inside is a second layer of warm clothing, and an implicit, unamazed wryness that has learned you never know how strange and horrible people will be. Don’t waste time brooding on it. There is an inside to Marge, the pregnant wife who likes to cuddle up with her husband; but she’s not the most interesting person in the world. And yet the Coens make her interesting in contrast with so many grubby monsters.
The Coen brothers discover interest in life when people are together, when the surfaces flash and resound with friction or fun. If we had to listen to the Dude, Walter, or Donny alone for a couple of hours, The Big Lebowski could be a bore—but together they are a triple act hardly aware of their own magic. The Coens are themselves a group, and who knows how far their steady company deters them from an introspection that might unnerve them? But they do seem to prefer pictures about groups of people (friends and enemies) who run the talk of rivalry, mockery, and wisecracking. They make movies about the sort of types we expect to see in movies. It seems a sensible way to work, and it accounts for the rather gruff modesty of what they do.
But there remains the question of whether or not you want to be inside Llewyn David, or Inside Llewyn Davis, which is the title of their latest film. He is an itinerant folksinger from the early 1960s and Greenwich Village. I suppose he wants to be a success, but I don’t believe he has ever thought to work out what that means. As played by Oscar Isaac, he sings a lot of songs and seldom goes anywhere without his guitar, but the Coens don’t really believe that he is going to make it, or that he deserves to make it: he doesn’t seem to possess the inner life that an artist has to bring to the surface. The inspiration of artists is not an easy subject for movies, but there are a few that make clear the consuming desperation of some artists to express themselves—Kirk Douglas as van Gogh in Lust for Life; Tom Hulce as Mozart in Amadeus; and even Nicole Kidman’s Virginia Woolf in The Hours.
There are other films where the intensity of being inside someone is delivered: in so many Robert Bresson films—like Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, and Pickpocket—we inhabit the spiritual suspense of the central characters. In Citizen Kane, the location of the film often seems to be inside the mind of Kane and a complicated portrait emerges not just of what this great man did in his life, but of how he reacted to the failure. Psycho truly takes us inside the house that is the troubled mind of Norman Bates, and that’s what turns Norman from being a mere monster to a fascinating, lost soul.
But Llewyn Davis is not like that. He drifts around, trying to find a sofa for a night or a gig for a couple of days. He looks after a friend’s cat and loses it with the same haplessness that tries to accommodate the young woman he has made pregnant. He would like to find his own father and be a famous folk singer. But he is short in so many respects. To my ears, his songs are all the same and dull (despite the presence of T-Bone Burnett on the film). His drive is intermittent. His need is fluttering like a flame in the wind. Indeed, he has nothing like the passion for the daft art of their own existence that motivates Donny and Walter in The Big Lebowski, Javier Bardem, Josh Brolin, and Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men, and the gathering of eccentrics, liars, and idiots that compose Burn After Reading.
Llewyn Davis is in a color so wintry and starved it’s close to black and white, and it’s as fastidious as the last time the Coens used that medium—The Man Who Wasn’t There. But that was one of their disasters and I feel that the look of this new film is offered as a patina of art. The Coens have a gimmicky but straightforward visual sense. They are more alert to the expressiveness of talk. Oscar Isaac seems disinclined to command the film, as if he felt Llewyn lacked the chops or the charm to do that. The girl he gets pregnant (played by Carey Mulligan) regards him as if she would rather not be reminded. Their link doesn’t have to be sentimental, though the Coens have often sketched in urgent sexual relationships with speed and deftness. This is one more film in which one wonders why Mulligan—an unquestioned talent—is doing it. (She hasn’t had a good role since Drive, and that was only half a role.) As it is, her character seems closer to the kind of despair we might expect to find inside Llewyn himself. The singer makes no progress, but he never really seems in danger or agony. Whereas the girl is on the edge of checking out.
Some people have enjoyed this film more than I did. My delight was confined to the road-trip passage that brings in John Goodman, an actor not just trained in Coen attitudes but a supremely confident exponent of dazzling exteriors that make us imagine the madman inside. He is a natural, and a source of uplift and comfort, like Walter Brennan in the films of Howard Hawks or Eugene Pallette in just about anything.
The Coen Brothers are more veterans than kids now. They are nearer sixty than fifty; this is their sixteenth film; and they have shelves of awards. It is generally asserted that they have a poker-faced, even cynical or despairing, take on the world that always finds amusement in its follies. But that attitude, I think, is a way of covering up their reluctance to reveal themselves, or to admit that inside there is not a great deal. Don’t misunderstand me. I love Miller’s Crossing, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, A Serious Man, No Country for Old Men, and Burn After Reading, even if I don’t feel compelled to call any of them great, and even if none of them are moving.
But Miller’s Crossing, to take one example, has so many things: it is the best screen attempt at the mood and material of Dashiell Hammett; it is funny and terrifying, often at the same time. It has uncanny performances from supporting players such as Jon Polito, John Turturro, and J.E. Freeman; and it is the best thing Gabriel Byrne, who plays the demolished fatalist hero, has ever done. Marcia Gay Harden is so effortlessly sexy that she never bothers with charm. Miller’s Crossing is a portrait of business betrayal in America, and one of our best ensemble films. But it doesn’t rise to the heights of the art, and I wonder how far that is because in being together Joel and Ethan never have to face that responsibility or loneliness.
Inside Llewyn Davis feels to me like a picture in which the brothers never got in such a hole they had to find a way of believing in their own material. It has a shrugging, routine moodiness. It never bites in the way, in No Country for Old Men, Bardem’s Chigurh is a match for the devil and Tommy Lee Jones becomes the spirit of every disenchanted lawman in American cinema. The Coens are master storytellers even when they are doing junk. But when they touch upon the infinite—like whether the John Goodman character in Barton Fink is just a regular serial killer, or the energy of all murder—they are transcendent. Still, one of the most likeable things about them is their unwillingness to sit with straight faces and listen to words like “transcendent”. There are many ways in which they hark back to movie professionalism of the '30s and '40s, not least in declining to take themselves too seriously.
I don’t reckon Inside Llewyn Davis takes itself too seriously either. This doesn’t trouble me, because I trust that in a year or two the Coens are going to produce something as unique as Burn After Reading (the best CIA and secrecy parody in our repertory) without noticing or congratulating themselves. They are every bit as interlocked as Walter and the Dude. If you saw either one of them walking along alone, you might feel bound to call an ambulance.