[Warning: A couple of spoilers below.]
I like Llewyn Davis. Sure, he’s often obnoxious, a touch scatty, somewhat unreliable, a little unfriendly, a tad cynical, and presumably spending any amount of time in his company is a bit of a downer. But I like him. Even though he’d likely turn up unannounced wanting to sleep on your couch, would probably lose your cat, might sleep with your girlfriend when your back’s turned or shout at your wife, can be relied on to swear in front of your kids, will talk down to your friends, may take your winter coat and will then have the nerve to ask you for a little money, he’s actually not that bad a guy. You want things to work out for him and, ultimately, would happily help him out from time to time. Yep. Even after everything, I like Llewyn.
Davis is a folk musician, played superbly by Oscar Isaac in the Coen Brothers’ latest film Inside Llewyn Davis, often sporting a blank expression as he wanders around New York in 1961, plying his trade in smoky Greenwich Village clubs. He is (very) loosely-based on the real-life musician Dave Van Ronk, a reasonably successful singer who made his name in the Village around the same time. Somewhat down on his luck and trying to forge a solo career following the suicide of his old musical partner, Davis has no fixed abode and is forced to rely on the kindness of benefactors, friends, fellow musicians and his ironically-named sister Joy (Jeanine Serralles).
Davis is a talented artist with integrity, but becomes increasingly frustrated by the music business as he witnesses the comparative success of lesser, novelty folk acts, such as friend Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake), whose wife Jean (Carey Mulligan) is apparently pregnant with Llewyn’s child. Davis sits in on a novelty folk studio session to earn a little money but eschews long-term royalties in favour of a quick, one-off payment. He loses the cat belonging to two of his kindest benefactors, an Upper East Side couple called the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett). He travels to Chicago with arrogant jazz musician and heroin addict Roland Turner (John Goodman) and beat poet / driver Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) only to be turned down by producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) when he auditions in the city. He is beaten up by a shadowy man for heckling another folk act the night before. He decides to follow in his father’s footsteps and re-join the merchant navy but he owes union dues and Joy has thrown out his seaman’s licence … which he told her to do.
This series of unfortunate events and knock-backs is played out slowly against a cold, urban winter backdrop, with more than a fair share of bad luck adding to Llewyn’s predicament. It is as if he is under some kind of curse, or trapped in a self-propelling cycle. Joel and Ethan Coen open and close the film with the same scene, at the end of a performance, but the song Davis plays at the end of this performance is different, suggesting a Groundhog Week – or something similar – is in effect. A curse is mentioned by Turner, who threatens Llewyn from the back seat of his car on the road to Chicago.
By the end of the film everything is the same as it was at the start: the Gorfeins have their cat back and welcome Llewyn into their home. Davis is again on good terms with club owner Pappi Corsicato (Max Casella) after a fight. He’s playing at the Gaslight Café again, and the words delivered on stage – ‘If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song’ – are now loaded, as is his assertion ‘I’m tired. I thought I just needed a night’s sleep but it’s more than that’. He ends the film by saying ‘au revoir’ to the man who beat him up for heckling … the most accurate translation of which is ‘until we see each other again’. And then there’s this dialogue with Jean:
Jean: You don’t want to go anywhere, and that’s why the same shit’s going to keep happening to you, because you want it to.
Llewyn Davis: Is that why?
Jean: Yes, and also because you’re an asshole!
It’s also interesting that the doctor at the abortion clinic informs Llewyn that an earlier abortion he paid for with a different woman was not actually carried out. Jean’s attitude to Llewyn mellows near the end of the film, suggesting perhaps that she too has decided not to have an abortion.
Llewyn is self-defeating and his decisions and behaviour are often the root cause of the misfortune. His artistic integrity also holds him back, at least for the duration of the story, but it also crucially makes the character more sympathetic. He is true to himself as a musician, refusing to alter his act to cash in on musical trends, and is rightly perplexed when contemporaries like Jim Berkey and Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) receive undue acclaim. One of the best touches of this film is the introduction of a certain famous musician at the very end, which signals that the times are about to change in terms of folk and much, much more. Llewyn poignantly watches the stage, having made the decision to carry on playing music himself; but will he become more popular in Bob Dylan’s early ‘60s slipstream, or is this the final realisation that he’s just not quite good enough? (Inside Llewyn Davis is full of neat, bittersweet touches, but I loved the scene where Llewyn, crashing at the pad of fellow folk act Al Cody (Adam Driver), tries to hide a box of his unsold solo records under a table, only to find that Cody has a box of his own unsold albums already stashed there. The fact that the corridor approach to Cody’s apartment and layout of the interior are almost identical to the Berkeys’ abode is another great touch. Few directors and writers are able to hold a candle to the throwaway, oddball humour of the Coens, and here it superbly reveals that – in all likelihood – these characters are not going to enjoy overly-successful musical careers.) It is the beginning of the end, tantalisingly suggesting that the cycle of misfortune might actually be over with soon, but the ending is as open to interpretation as the dark climax of the Coens’ thematically-similar A Serious Man.
The two brothers skilfully link Davis to Dylan in an earlier scene (which is important enough to form the basis of the film’s poster); walking along a snowy Chicago street and with his coat wrapped tightly against the cold, it’s impossible not to think of the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. However at all times Llewyn’s capacity for self-destruction and unreliability make you understand why he hasn’t succeeded (as yet) as a solo artist in the music business, regardless of talent. He is, to put it mildly, a jerk, despite some redeeming qualities.
The shred of likeability is due in no small part to Oscar Isaac’s tremendous performance. On screen for the entire movie, Isaac is entirely believable and – not to get too bogged down discussing something that doesn’t really matter all that much – the collective decision by the Academy voters to overlook his work here is as baffling as their decision not to recognise Inside Llewyn Davis as one of the best films of the year, or the Coens in the Best Director category. Isaac brings to life a fascinating character and despite some suggestions by real-life musicians that the Coens’ portrayal of 1960s Greenwich Village isn’t wholly accurate (does it have to be?), singing live the actor completely convinced me as an honest folk performer.
Isaac is aided well by the cast; Inside Llewyn Davis has a typically-memorable selection of supporting characters, and Casella, Goodman, Mulligan, Abraham, Hedlund, Philips and Bartlett all shine despite relatively little time on screen. They each in turn add a little colour and some add warmth to this otherwise cold, de-saturated world.
This is one of the Coens’ finest movies to date, and that is saying something. It is a fascinating examination of artistic integrity and failure, a warm(ish) homage to the folk scene of the early 1960s that isn’t afraid of poking a little fun here and there; the music is often as amusingly bad as it is moving and essential. Above all else, it is an engrossing character study containing the signature wit, intelligence and downbeat, pessimistic worldview of its creators in abundance. Despite everything he does, for some reason I feel for his predicament and I like Llewyn. A lot.
Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Written by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman
Running Time: 104 minutes