This image is from the official trailer for “Inside Llewyn Davis,” distributed by CBS Films.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a movie that I have always found myself coming back to. Like “Goodfellas” and “The Matrix” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” it’s a movie that, if I attempt to watch just a five minute scene, I’ll end up watching it all. But when I first saw it, I didn’t particularly like it. I found that it needlessly meandered and ultimately led to a melancholy that at the time I thought wasn’t earned. 

Aesthetically, the movie is very accessible with its sincere folk music and charming lead. But, at least at first glance, it can develop into a needless montage of pain with principal character Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, “Dune”) bouncing from loss to loss and looking for any inkling of success. In my first viewing, I was waiting for the emotional catharsis. But it never came. Llewyn, throughout all his varying escapades, carries a sadness that has no hope of vanishing. 

But eventually, something about that sadness stuck with me, and I couldn’t get the movie out of my head. I had to see it again. And it was simply perfect the second time around. I found Oscar Isaac’s performance as the titular character beautifully layered. Llewyn is blunt, bothersome and selfish, yet he commands your unwavering sympathy every time he fingerpicks his Gibson L1.

Eventually, I realized that what continually hooked me into the movie was more complex than just empathizing with his plight. I found his eternal sorrow and continual lack of success personal; I found it relatable. It registered to me that I was using Llewyn as a sort of warped mirror — the cyclical frustration and sadness that I saw in him was how I saw my own life. 

I guess I always knew this. But living with a fear of failure that kept me from taking risks and kept me unsatisfied and disappointed in myself, I was afraid of even confronting the fact that something could be wrong. That was a risk, too. And convincing myself that nothing was wrong kept me thinking that this was my life and always would be. If nothing was wrong, then my stagnant experience must have been how life was for me: equal parts disappointment and underachievement. 

This is how Llewyn goes through life. He’s miserable and wants to achieve. He tries to, but not nearly enough to get over the hump and succeed. These failures catch up to him, both literally — as he starts to lose money and burn bridges — and also emotionally, and thus he remains miserable. His failures and the consequences that accompany them define his entire state-of-being, even when he does eventually take risks and give his full effort. His final heart-wrenching performance is met with a swift punch to the jaw. 

When even his greatest efforts are received with pain, there is no wonder he understands his position as fixed and immovable. And the movie structures itself on the cyclical nature of Lleywn’s life: make mistakes, give effort, face the repercussions of those mistakes, lose confidence, repeat. Every week starts and ends with failure, so whatever hope that arises in the middle is gone by the end. It was no trouble for me to identify this repeating sequence, as this was the pattern that I thought my own life followed. 

While this movie does maintain the trademark Coen brother humor and sharp dialogue, the emphasis is certainly on the strong emotional undercurrent. It is one of only a few of their films that isn’t coated entirely in irony. Llewyn is portrayed genuinely, without demanding the audience laugh at his plight. Unlike in “Barton Fink” and “A Serious Man,” the inner weight of the protagonist’s turmoil isn’t undercut by absurdity. Here, Llewyn’s struggles are as raw and stripped down as a Coen protagonist can be, and his sorrow ripples through the film within the folk soundtrack itself. Every note that he sings or plays is a reflection of his desires and the ultimate disappointment when it ends in disaster. 

It’s almost as if the lack of irony speaks to how the Coen brothers view the struggle of an artist, or any person trapped in a melancholic cycle of their own making. They left their trademark “making fun of” attitude at the door and opted for a genuinely poignant outcome. It could be interpreted as a sort of look into their own fears as artists. But I also think that viewers could certainly relate Llewyn’s unending depression to whatever they themselves were going through. That was certainly its effect on me.

After some time, I started understanding the psychological effect of watching “Inside Llewyn Davis” for what it was — something created by the filmmakers. Llewyn’s turmoil is something shaped by artists in control of their craft. His expressed suffering is not something innate and neither was mine. If the Coens can command such precise control over the emotions in characters they’ve created, I can control the emotions in my own life.

And I’m happy to say that my outlook on life has greatly improved. I no longer feel trapped in a cycle of underachievement and failure, and my confidence and ability to take risks have become much better. I’ve managed to break free of the cycle that caused my fixed mindset of despondent thinking. 

Yet I’m still captivated by this film and the unchanging emotional turmoil that it presents. The entire film displays a person in constant pain and disappointment, and watching the events that take place in this movie shouldn’t be satisfying. But the raw emotion and desire for catharsis that never comes are fascinating even after I’ve escaped my own internal prison. 

Maybe it’s my sympathy for his plight (a state of affairs that I know well). Or maybe it’s my fear that I could return to such a dispirited headspace. Whatever the case, the world and attitude presented in “Inside Llewyn Davis” never fail to suck me in during repeated viewings. And even though the film suggests a pessimistic view of emotional mobility, watching it has always, at the very least, been insightful for me. It’s helped me understand more about myself and made me realize I have the ability to conquer my demons. I wish Llewyn the best. 

Daily Arts Writer Alvin Anand can be reached at