It seems glib opening a review of a film about a failed folk singer with a Bob Dylan quote, yet Inside Llewyn Davis is like an answer to the question Dylan famously posed nearly half a century ago. This is stranger still when the titular musician not only doesn’t have any answers but doesn’t really have any questions either. In a career checkered with misanthropic characters, Llewyn Davis might be the most antagonistic protagonist the Coens have ever crafted, more Barton Fink than Marge Gunderson. Much like Spike Jonze’s Her, Inside Llewyn Davis is the type of film that, were it handled by less competent or deft storytellers, would have been a chore to sit through, a nearly two-hour pity party for an unlikeable prick. What we get is something far harder to categorize: a character study that is never less than painfully honest, the transmogrification of the 1960s folk scene into bleak American mythology, and a parable of the paralysis of grief in a world on the cusp of change.
Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a transient vagrant who trudges around the Greenwich Village scene circa 1961. He hops from couch to couch, attempting to curry favor with the precious few who don’t despise his guts, though that number seems to be dwindling by the day. We meet a number of characters throughout Llewyn’s travels, including Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake), fellow musicians and friends, though just barely in the case of Jean who may or may not be pregnant with Llewyn’s bastard son. Others include Roland Turner (John Goodman), a truly reprehensible man that seems, with his hulking physique constantly clutching a pair of crutches, like some monstrous fairy tale creature; the Gorfeins, a hospitable upper-class couple who have some very peculiar acquaintances; and Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a record producer based in Chicago who may give Llewyn his long-sought ticket to fame. The thread that links all of this together is the Gorfeins’ orange tabby that follows Llewyn when he leaves their apartment building after crashing there for the night. What does this cat signify? When Llewyn attempts to leave a message with the super of the Gorfeins’ building, she misinterprets his message as “Llewyn is the cat”, not “Llewyn has the cat.” Yet I don’t believe even that is the only explanation that can be extrapolated from the existence of the film’s feline.
The plot of this film is episodic on a surface level, with Llewyn encountering a slew of problems, many of which are of his own creation. Llewyn’s manager, Mel, isn’t terribly competent and hasn’t been able to successfully sell Llewyn’s debut solo album which was recorded in the aftermath of the suicide of his former partner Mike. Llewyn’s attempts at maintaining artistic integrity are undermined by his own pride or bitterness, as well as just a spot of bad luck. When he records a single with Jim and a fellow musician (Adam Driver), the song is absolutely cheesy and Llewyn demands payment upfront instead of settling for any royalties, which of course comes to back to bite him in the ass when the song becomes a hit. Another instance featuring a cameo by a certain singer near the end that I dare not spoil only serves to further illustrate that, more often than not, fame comes to those who really are in the right place at the right time.
Yet perhaps more important is the scene where Llewyn, eating dinner with the Gorfeins and their guests, is asked to perform a song. He obliges, and chooses “Fare The Well (Dink’s Song)”, which was his big hit with Mike. Yet when Lillian Gorfein attempts to sing the harmony, which was Mike’s part, Llewyn explodes in a fit of rage and insults everyone present. The Coens, who have portrayed their characters in the past in broad strokes, bring a startling sensitivity to this scene. The Gorfeins are not at fault for attempting to bring music into their “loving home”, as they call it. Llewyn himself is cruel and hardly the victim here, yet it’s apparent that it’s not solely arrogance that spurred his tantrum but rather a desperate possessiveness of that song, as if he’s tried to preserve the memory of his dead partner like some fragile butterfly encased in amber. This doesn’t excuse his abrasive attitude, nor does it sentimentalize some of the harsher things he does in the film towards other people. It only serves to make him more human, an acerbic asshole mourning what he has lost and stubbornly refuses to replace.
I haven’t even begun to touch upon the allusions toward mythology present in the film (perhaps the most overtly Odyssey-influenced film the Coens have made since O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and I could indeed devote a whole article to peeling away the layers of the Sisyphean structure of the film. I also must commend the performances, both in terms of music and acting, from everyone in the cast, particularly Oscar Isaac who proves himself to be a performer of considerable talent. But you’re probably asking yourself why on Earth you should see this film. I don’t blame you for asking: the film is uncompromisingly downbeat, both in plot and aesthetic (the cinematography by Bruno Debonnel is like a smudged photograph, beautiful yet faded), and it’s hero is an unlikeable and unpropitious character who may not in fact change by the end of the film. Yet I feel therein lies the point of this sad little fable. Llewyn Davis has some talent, and is often quite commanding in his haunting delivery. But despite his constant movement, he is a man who determinedly stays in place, a guy unwilling to embrace anything or anyone, least of all himself, due to his crippling sadness. But the world changes around him, and it will continue to change, regardless of what he does or who he becomes. That insistence that life can, will, and must go on, is what makes Inside Llewyn Davis curiously moving. With one of their darkest films, the Coens have made one of their more powerful affirmations of existence.
“If it’s never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” Llewyn remarks to an audience at the film’s beginning and end. What a shame Llewyn keeps foolishly hoping the same could be said about people.