The first time I saw Inside Llewyn Davis, I told people who asked me about it that the movie wasn't very good. Following two masterworks of adaptation (No Country for Old Men and True Grit) and a satisfyingly prickly original (A Serious Man, wedged between Cormac McCarthy and Charles Portis), writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen had taken things too easy with their latest. Davis is a chilly snapshot of Greenwich Village's early folk scene, long on buffoons and interpersonal scorn and mournful public-domain music and centered on the most one-dimensionally selfish protagonist the Coens have devised since Barton ("You're a Fuck, Fink") Fink.
Then I watched it again, and I kind of loved it.
Mind you, Llewyn Davis the character (Oscar Isaac, terrific) remains borderline unforgivable, and the Coens aren't breaking new ground here. Their version of the basement-toiling autoharp players and earnest harmonizers of the early Kennedy administration is simply a period-cloaked descent into familiar noirish personalities and sudden biblical punishments, set to a carefully curated soundtrack (oh, brother, there's T Bone Burnett) that embraces its NPR-bait schematic.
But the Coens don't build their films as surprise machines; they make moral farces designed to be reread as one might ponder the Book of Job. And with Inside Llewyn Davis, they've distilled their formula into a Dylan-sharp folk song, one whose stray notes don't reveal themselves as choruses until you sit with the thing a second time.
Not that every pattern on display requires deciphering. We know, for instance, two things about Llewyn from the start: that he's talented, and that nobody cares. In fact, rare is the moment when one of his songs doesn't preface a beating or some other, not much less violent, remonstration. No one but Llewyn Davis is ever ready to hear a Llewyn Davis performance, and even he isn't much listening to the world around him. He has no ear for the complaints of others, and he has no sense that his own distress is a plaint unworthy of the form he has chosen for himself.
So, yeah, "Coen hero takes sucker punch, is asshole" is not a shocking headline. But around the edges of the brothers' customary irony is something else: a relatively straight elegy for the time just before folk music's pre-electric mix of protest and optimism fell (or, anyway, gave way to a far less alkaline tonic), an American moment in twilight as another American moment is about to ascend. (Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who shot the Coens' segment of the 2006 anthology movie Paris, je t'aime, delivers a Greenwich Village of wintry yellow light and long shadows, a beautiful string of album covers waiting to happen.) When Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver show up as uncynical troubadours, there's a bigger laugh in seeing Davis squirm at their success than in the squareness he rejects. For once, the Coens seem fond of something.
The brief scene that Isaac, Timberlake and Driver share — a recording session for so-bad-it's-awesome novelty song — is as elemental as movie joys get. It's also vital in offsetting the jaggedness ahead, as Llewyn fails and fails again, leaving a trail of sullied artistic partnerships, inexcusable tantrums and squandered kindnesses. (Here are this sad song's choruses, these two visits with his sister and two pleadings at the union hall and two bleak stops at his agent's office.)
At the far point of Llewyn's journey — a trip that includes time with a devilish junkie (John Goodman, never hammier) — is a sit-down with a career-making club owner and talent manager. Even here, there's an echo built in, with Llewyn first selling himself across a desk and then, following a quick edit, giving it a try knee-to-knee with the man as he performs for him. The impresario is played by F. Murray Abraham, so long removed from his breakthrough as Salieri in Amadeus and thus so right as the man about to deliver the bad news. In Amadeus, a self-aware mediocrity is doomed to dwell in the shadow of a shrugging, vulgar genius. Here, it's the other way around, or something close to it. And Llewyn sees it.
He also sees, as his own music nears its end, Bob Dylan. We, too, glimpse him (someone playing him, under a recording), at a lip-sync-forgiving distance, a re-creation at once authentic to the movie and a distraction from its delicate fictions.
Even if you don't buy that fateful glance (and I didn't even on second viewing), though, there are haunting questions underneath it. What would it have looked like, a world in which it was Davis, or someone like him (the character is modeled on Dave Van Ronk, by all accounts a kind and heroic presence rather than an abortion-prompting shitheel), who became a star and not Bob Dylan? What does it look like to see someone else perfect what we've been struggling simply to master? We see Dylan, and the Coens puncture this tiny universe, and we know at last what the movie has told us from its opening scenes. For every great, there must be a loser — a dozen losers, a score of them. At least some have songs written about them.