The trailers for Inside Llewyn Davis don’t quite capture the feel of the film. If you watch them, there’s a kind of satiny look about the imagery, something that to me denoted an air of nostalgia for New York in 1961. Yet the colors are desaturated, with purpose. The most colorful thing in the film is the orange cat that runs away at the beginning, just as our title character played by Oscar Isaac slips out the door of an acquaintance’s apartment.
Llewyn’s crashing at another person’s place because he’s a failure as a folk singer, and mainly a failure at life. His best isn’t good enough for anyone, and yet he persists against his good judgement, trying not to sell out or sell himself short.
That satiny finish in the trailers is our hero’s haze of disillusionment rather than nostalgia. We’re given something funny in the clever, rapid fire manner the Coen brothers excel at, or at least something funny until it’s not anymore. Mostly, Inside Llewyn Davis is bitter and resentful at the washed-out world of phonies. No wonder the title character is such a lovable schmuck.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Release Date: December 6, 2013 (limited); December 20, 2013 (expanded)
There’s a line by James Baldwin about how from the point of view of an artist, it seems that the universe is conspiring against his or her talent, and it’s because of this sense of universal contempt and public indifference that artists feel compelled to make their work important. That’s what Llewyn’s facing in life. His friends are making it while he can barely get by. There’s Jean and Jim (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake), for instance, who hope to make enough in the music scene to eventually make a life outside of music. For Llewyn, that sounds like artistic and personal compromise. Worse, people that Llewyn despise are doing much better because they’re more palatable and sellable. Nothing makes money like the middle of the road. So on goes the couch-to-couch life for Llewyn, playing crappy clubs to make a meager subsistence.
Everyone wants to embody the holy idea of the starving artist, but being an actual starving artist? Forget it. While that pain is supposedly good for the art, it’s always a blight on the soul. There’s no indication of how long Llewyn’s been living this life at the beginning of the film, but it’s been long enough to make him a bitter man. He hates his friends (and they hate him back), he hates their friends, and he hates himself most of all. If you’ve been on the outskirts of a creative scene of any kind, these feelings are all too common, and it can only be tolerated for so long before something finally gives. Maybe the reason these moments feel so real is because Llewyn and other characters throughout the picture are fictional composites of real people involved in the pre-Dylan folk scene.
A lot of credit needs to go to the way Llewyn’s written and the way Isaac plays the character. The best way I can describe his whole attitude toward life is melancholy rage. Llewyn is a great example of the difference between likable and sympathetic. He’s not necessarily likable, but there’s something sympathetic about him that makes me like him. Could be the weathered, beaten, palooka look of Llewyn, or it could be the honest way that he lashes out at the people he relies on, like Llewyn’s a wounded animal. He feels real because he can be so unlikable.
This all sounds glum, but there are plenty of bright spots early on in the film thanks to the Coens’ penchant for creating genuine characters and memorable oddballs. The two most memorable oddballs are a scene-stealing John Goodman as a blowhard jazz artist en route to Chicago and a golly-shucks folky played by Stark Sands. (Stark Sands would make a hell of a stage name.) The verbal jokes tend to be driven by a white hot anger, though, and the ultimate butt of the universe’s cruel jokes is Llewyn. It’s as if the Coens were conspiring against Llewyn during this long, cold week of his life — our hero is like Daffy Duck in a non-meta folk version of “Duck Amuck.”
The music in the film is a bright spot as well. The first two songs we hear involve Llewyn. There’s “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” played to a sparse crowd in the Gaslight Cafe, the opening shot so washed out it’s almost black and white, as if the color slowly creeps in via Llewyn’s performance; then there’s the bittersweet “Dink’s Song (Fare Thee Well),” which we hear in a stunning sequence that reveals the New York of the past and the disheartening road ahead for Llewyn. (“Dink’s Song” was closely associated with real-life folk musician Dave Van Ronk, whose book The Mayor of MacDougal Street was a source of inspiration for the Coens when crafting the film.)
If you listen closely to the music as it’s sequenced, the narrative of Inside Llewyn Davis seems to unfold song by song. There’s an especially funny recording session that epitomizes the difference between art and commerce, and it’s one of the most memorable light scenes in the film. In that scene we also meet one of the other oddball side characters, a fake cowboy-looking kid who goes by Al Cody. Ultimately, all of Inside Llewyn Davis is contained in “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” and “Dink’s Song.” In the story of the film, the latter was a minor hit for Llewyn when he was part of a folk duo. Now he’s a solo act. Nothing’s gone right since, or that’s the sense of things, at least.
The Coens set Llewyn out on a little adventure full of heartaches, emphasis on little (and heartaches). In a couple ways the film is the chronically depressed nephew of O Brother, Where Art Thou? This isn’t a straight reinterpretation of The Odyssey, though. The framework might be there, the allusions are, but the Coens are using that idea of a journey to explore a few ideas that creative people wrestle with when things don’t go as planned. One of these, and it’s biggie: What does it mean to fail as an artist, and can it be done with dignity if it’s the only thing an artist knows? Another biggie: If every artist feels that the machinery of existence is working against his or her abilities, should they then sell out or check out?
And that gets at the heart of Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s a movie about the nature of authenticity. People can look back at the supposed glories of the past, but that’s all nostalgia. There are forgotten musicians, ugly elements of the folk scene, and even ugly things people do to be a part of the scene. Around Llewyn, there are folkies with fake names to sound more folky, and there are folkies of limited talent whose real gift is their ability to schmooze and to glad hand. To know a folky is to have some connection to Greenwich Village and some hip cachet. Forget that it should be about the music and the history behind the music, one of my best friends is a folky! Here, the scene is more important to people than the songs, and the scene is mostly inauthentic. No wonder Llewyn Davis is such a lovable schmuck.
I notice critics have taken conflicting stances on what we’re supposed to make of Llewyn and his music. Is he an unrecognized genius? Is he a good talent, but just not good enough? Is he just another mediocre hack in a world that’s 95% mediocre hacks? Amid the clever visual callbacks, the modulations in tone, the expert imagery to communicate the inner workings of Llewyn’s head, the Coen brothers never give their take on his music, at least not overtly, but I think their point of view is in there and I have my opinions about what it is. Every time Llewyn sings, just listen closely to the music and ask yourself, “Does it sound like he means it?” And then ask yourself “Why?”
[Inside Llewyn Davis will screen at Alice Tully Hall on Saturday, September 28th and Saturday, October 5th, and at the Walter Reade Theater on Friday, October 11th. For tickets and more information, click here.]