“Hitching rides from New York to Chicago; keeping enough change in your pocket to make calls from pay phones; making the rounds of friends and acquaintances living in tenement walk-ups, all with the same makeshift end table next to the same beat-up sofa by the same window looking out on the same fire escape—Inside Llewyn Davis is a story whose every particular is firmly rooted in the early sixties in general, and in the West Village in particular. The Coens have always been zealous excavators of the unheralded or bypassed corners of American life, from late-forties Northern California suburbia to the folkways of the modern American Midwest. They are connoisseurs of the spaces between and the moments before and after or just on the edges of historical milestones. And as storytellers, they seem to begin, gleefully, with a self-imposed challenge: Who is the least likely hero-on-a-quest on whose shoulders we can park an entire movie?
That the Coen brothers are comic artists is lost on no one, but I think of them equally as musical filmmakers. Like Martin Scorsese and the many directors who have come after him, the Coens make films with carefully curated pop-music soundtracks (The Big Lebowski, A Serious Man) tied not only to the ambience but also the thematic drive of the works. Each of the Coens’ movies is “set” to the music of a particular variety of American speech …
Whenever the characters in this film pick up their instruments and sing, their sense of time, and ours, shifts from the numbingly horizontal to the poetically and ecstatically vertical … Plain American language in all its glory, a deep and aching sadness transfigured by song into what can only be called affirmation, a tattered, bloody flag of freedom planted in the ground of doubt, cruelty, and indeterminacy. That’s the wonder of this music and the movie that holds it.”
By Kent Jones