Please Note: This review contains spoilers.
Joel and Ethan Coen’s much-anticipated Inside Llewyn Davis, a week in the life of a fictional singer-songwriter in early ’60s Greenwich village, is probably not the film their fans are expecting. It certainly falls into the Coen rubric of underdog journeymen, as all of their best films are, and bears all the hallmarks of their distinctive style: those everlasting wide angles, distinctive palettes, and dark, broodish humor.
But unlike those previous films, in which the journey had a finite objective, Llewyn’s is much more elusive. The O Brother Where Art Thou? gang were in search of a treasure, the Dude in search of compensation for a rug in The Big Lewowski, the heroine in True Grit in search of revenge. Llewyn is, broadly, in search of his big break in the business–but unlike the others, he has no idea how to go about obtaining it. And so he wanders, much like the lyrics in Bob Dylan’s classic song: “how does it feel, to be without a home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.”
It’s 1961 and Llewyn Davis (the impressive Oscar Isaac) is a singer-songwriter who works the café scene in Greenwich Village. The film opens at the now-legendary birthplace of the early ’60s folk scene The Gaslight. Beautifully lit by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (a departure from the Coens’ staple DP Roger Deakins) Llewyn, the cafe, and indeed New York itself, is a desaturated pallette of broodish browns, grays and moody blues. (No pun intended. OK. Pun totally intended.)
Llewyn, whose partner recently committed suicide, has gone solo and is having a hell of a time trying to make his own name. More or less homeless, he couch surfs with hosts both willing and unwilling. The willing being the parents of his late partner, a well-to-do Upper West Side couple, and the unwilling being folk duo Jean and Jim (Carrie Mulligan and Justin Timberlake). Llewyn’s odyssey to nowhere begins when, after checking out of the Upper West Side flat, he accidentally lets the family cat out. The cat (appropriately named Ulysees) becomes the catalyst and, like Alice chasing the after the white rabbit, Llewyn’s pursuit of the cat sends him down a rabbit hole that (unlike Alice) doesn’t have a happy ending. (And can we give this cat a supporting actor oscar? Like, now?)
Having accidentally knocked up the talented but disagreeable Jean, he must raise the money to have it aborted. He does this by sitting in on a recording with his friend-but-not-really-friend Jim in a ridiculous studio session for a novelty record. Timberlake’s Jim is perfectly believable as a rather blank, clean-cut early 60s folk singer (Jim looks the part, so he’ll always get more gigs and contracts than the much more talented Llewyn) and a scene-stealing Adam Driver rounds out the ridiculous trio for a song that is a hilarious ode to the space age, “Please Mr. Kennedy”–easily the film’s most lighthearted, blissfully ridiculous moment.
Tired of being diddled around by his hack agent, Llewyn, desperate for a dollar and to land a gig, arms himself with a copy of his record Inside Llewyn Davis, and the cat (which is, in fact, not the Upper West Side couple’s cat, but just random stray–like Llewyn) hitchhikes his way to Chicago to meet with a big-time club owner in hopes of landing a gig. The journey is classic Coen, but this time the Coens do not get colorful. They stay very centered and sober, making it more of a docudrama (like one of the early Maysles documentaries on the Beatles or the Stones) and they refuse to deliver any real stylized punch as we’ve come to expect from them. This is, instead, simply a man with a cat, riding in the car of a shady driver and his employer (the Coen’s go-to character man John Goodman) who likes to shoot-up at roadside rest stops. After Goodman nearly OD’s and driver gets arrested for driving under the influence, Llewyn walks it the rest of the way to Chicago– meaning he must leave the cat behind.
When Llewyn finally meets with the Chicago impresario (F. Murray Abraham) he is told, “play me something from Inside Llewyn Davis,” Llewyn obliges . But the song is definitely coming from inside Llewn–deep within. It’s almost a Flashdance moment: A spotlight shines down on the artist in one beautiful moment in which the full froth of talent is bared fully. Only, unlike Flashdance, Llewyn doesn’t get the job or become a star. He “doesn’t connect,” says Abraham, which is the story of Llewyn’s life. He doesn’t connect with anyone, or anything. He is possesses a volcanic, raw talent that is trapped inside the body of a fuck-up. (And, kind of an asshole to boot.) But the biting irony is the fact that what *does* connect, according to the suits, is the safe, novelty folk that has made Jim and Jean successful.
By the time Llewyn staggers back to New York, he’s ready to chuck it all in and head back to life on the sea–but he even manages to screw that up. Jean gets him another gig at the Gaslight, which he’s not happy about, but needs the money an so he obliges, getting to “split the basket” (the take of the night’s money) with the second name on the bill.
And here the Coen’s leave us right where we started: back at the Gaslight, singing a searing rendition of folk legend Dave Van Ronk’s classic “Hang Me, O Hang Me”– the lyrics of which, by now, have taken on a poignant meaning.
Llewyn Davis is a cyclical odyssey, in which the viewer ends right back where they started, having really gained nothing, just as the protagonist hasn’t. That sounds like a pan, which it should be, but it isn’t. We’re talking about, not just the music business, but about a very dysfunctional talent—a wrapped up happy ending with the hero growing into a responsible adult would be false. (The film takes place over the course of only a few days, what do you expect?) The Coens drop us off where they picked us up, cut to black, and leave us to our own devices. We are forced to contemplate Llewyn’s fate, and we really hope he gets his shit together. Not because he’s likable–at all–but because Llewyn Davis is a terrific talent.
The soundtrack here is pitch perfect. It probably won’t ignite a national interest into early ’60s folk music, as O Brother ignited a national interest in early American bluegrass, but the goods are definitely there. Oscar Isaac’s vocal performance is the emotional crux of the film, as it is the only time we are allowed to really see inside Llewyn Davis. The Coens re-teamed with producer T-Bone Burnett, for a melancholic portrait of the artist using a blend of folk standards, original pieces, and reworkings of arrangements with the help of Justin Timberlake and Marcus Mumford. Inspired by, but by no means based on, the life and music of Dave Van Ronk, the film pays tribute to Van Ronk’s music (the Coens even ripped off the album cover art for Van Ronk’s “Inside Dave Van Ronk”), and the music–and presentation–really nails the ‘60s folk scene spot on: cable-knit sweaters and all.
Also, much to the Coen’s credit, is their masterful evocation of time and place. This is one of the things that makes the Coen’s work so unique–their ability to completely assimilate into a fixed point in time: the seedy Hollywood of Barton Fink, the looking-glass odyssey of O Brother Where Art Thou, the absurd Los Angeles of The Big Lebowski, and, of course, Fargo. And in that respect, Inside Llewyn Davis is every bit as true to the Coens as any of their finest work: early ‘60s Greenwich Village has been artfully resurrected into a living, breathing bastion of life. It lives and breathes– or, rather, smokes and sings.
Llewyn Davis asks big questions about art, its place, its worth, and does not attempt to answer any of them. Which probably will split its audience who might feel strung along only to come to no resolution. But, not only is that life– that’s the life of an artist. The constant, intensely internal struggle of feelings of self-worthlessness versus an undeniable awareness of one’s talent are here openly bared. Will Llewyn Davis make it? Will his deeply personal music finally “connect” with people? As the film ends, we see a silhouette of the musician he’s “sharing the basket” with at the Gaslight–a very young Bob Dylan.
Maybe, just maybe, Llewyn has a shot at turning out all right after all.