Inside Llewyn Davis: An Enigmatic Parable About Ambition and Failure—Set to Excellent Music

Reviews of the latest films.
Dec. 5 2013 5:03 PM

Inside Llewyn Davis

A journey back to Greenwich Village’s folk heyday with the freeflowin’ brothers Coen.

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Llewyn’s repertoire—drawn in part from that of the singer who was one inspiration for the character, the late Dave Van Ronk—tends toward somber traditional folk ballads about hanging and death in childbirth. It’s not the kind of music that sends records flying off the shelves. But as delivered by Isaac (an experienced guitarist and singer who once fronted his own band) in a raw, soul-baring tenor, Llewyn’s songs are exquisite—the high point of a beautifully chosen soundtrack, woven together by T Bone Burnett in part from songs by the artists on whom this movie’s scruffy Village habitués are loosely based.

What’s so wonderful about the musical world Inside Llewyn Davis creates is that it isn’t simply a re-creation of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early ’60s, but a ground-up reimagining of it. There are elements of many figures from that time drifting through the soundtrack and the story—not just Van Ronk but Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Peter, Paul and Mary, and of course, Bob Dylan (whose glancing intersection with Llewyn’s story I would have to be meaner than a Coen brother to spoil). Yet every song—and there are many we hear in their entirety, performed live on set by the actors—feels fresh and immediate, as if we’re discovering this kind of music for the first time along with the crowds in the smoky, cavernous Gaslight (rendered in velvety greens and grays by the French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel). I particularly loved the scenes in which Llewyn contemptuously endures his friends’ performances of the bland, sanitized folk he loathes. (Among its many other themes, this is a great film about professional resentment.) Even as we identify with Llewyn’s rage that Jim and Jean’s doe-eyed harmonizing is what audiences want, we also can’t help but hum along to those catchy harmonies. The Coens strike a nice balance in these scenes between satirizing the music and letting us enjoy it.

Midway through the film, there’s an extended road-trip sequence in which Llewyn catches a ride to Chicago with a trash-talking, substance-abusing jazz musician (loosely based on the blues singer Doc Pomus and played, a little too broadly for my taste, by Coens regular John Goodman) and his taciturn beatnik manservant (Garrett Hedlund). The dialogue in this portion of the film is written in a style familiar from early Coens films, all deadpan non sequiturs and elaborately nasty threats. Goodman is amusing as the world’s worst backseat companion, but the antic humor of much of the road-trip sequence seems misplaced, as if Jeff Bridges’ Dude from The Big Lebowski were about to drop in with a White Russian in hand. When Llewyn reaches Chicago, though, there’s a magnificent scene between him and F. Murray Abraham as the gnomic owner of the legendary folk club the Gate of Horn, featuring a partly a cappella vocal performance by Isaac that makes the whole trip worthwhile (for the audience, anyway—I’m not sure about Llewyn).

Ethan Coen and Joel Coen in Inside Llewyn Davis
Ethan and Joel Coen on the set of Inside Llewyn Davis

Photo by Alison Rosa/CBS Films

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There are many movies about artists struggling to make it to the big time, but in most of them the main character does, at some moment, experience actual success. At the end of Inside Llewyn Davis—the title is also the name of Llewyn’s profoundly un-best-selling solo album—it’s not at all clear that our gifted but self-sabotaging hero will ever find success as a singer or, indeed, that he has it in him to keep trying. Yet despite its pervasive atmosphere of failure and melancholy, Inside Llewyn Davis is ultimately a dark valentine to both its hero and his milieu. The meticulous production design and cinematography evoke a Greenwich Village, not of historical record, but of the heart. (The directors cite the album cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as a visual influence.) For all its grim pessimism, Inside Llewyn Davis is almost romantic in its way. It’s an enigmatic parable about ambition and failure, about the loneliness and insecurity of trying to live as an artist.

There’s a wisp of a subplot that floats into and out of the story involving an orange tabby cat named Ulysses (whose Homeric name lends a quasi-epic dimension to the journey he and Llewyn will later undertake). This intrepid animal escapes from the Gorfeins’ apartment early on and proceeds to reappear—but wait, is it the same cat?—at various key moments in Llewyn’s life, seeming at once to solicit his care and to sit in judgment of his many moral failings. I think the cat’s (or cats’) fate is connected in some way to the puzzling temporal relationship between those opening and closing scenes at the Gaslight, but after two viewings, I still haven’t figured out quite how—another of the many enchanting ambiguities of Inside Llewyn Davis. Maybe it’s time for another spin around the Möbius strip.