Ethan and Joel Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis is structured around a temporal riddle that’s also a mordant existential joke. The film, an elegiac glimpse at the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early ’60s, begins and ends with slightly differing versions of the same event. On a chilly winter night in 1961, aspiring folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) performs onstage at the Gaslight coffeehouse, then steps into the back alley, where a mysterious stranger is waiting to beat him up.
The repetition of this scene—with a few crucial additions the second time around—lends the movie that comes in between an unsettling Möbius-strip quality. Is the first scene a flash-forward, or the last scene a flashback? Of these two versions of Llewyn’s set at the Gaslight and its unpleasant aftermath, which, if either, actually took place? (Or are we simply witnessing the same event from two different points of view? If so, whose points of view are they?) And if both versions of the evening at the Gaslight are somehow “real,” are we to conclude that Llewyn is stuck in a nightmare version of Nietzsche’s eternal return, doomed to live the same crappy, broke, cold week over and over for the rest of his life?
It’s a very Coens-esque way to frame a movie, both in its philosophical pessimism and its playful cruelty toward protagonist and audience. Like Michael Stuhlbarg’s beleaguered physics professor in A Serious Man (along with this one, among my favorites in the Coens’ increasingly astounding canon), Llewyn Davis is a modern-day Job, a well-meaning but not particularly loveable schnook from Queens who can’t seem to catch a break. His former singing partner, Mike (whose voice we hear on the soundtrack as that of Marcus Mumford), has recently died, leaving Llewyn at sea both professionally and personally. (Though all we see of Mike is a photograph on an album cover, his absence, and the pain of his loss, hover over the movie, thanks to Oscar Isaac’s finely filigreed performance.)
Too poor (or too feckless) to get his own place, Llewyn coasts from one couch to another, bunking one night with the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), a middle-aged academic couple who have shown him kindness despite his frequently obnoxious behavior, and the next at the Village pad of his friends Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan). Jim and Jean also perform as a clean-scrubbed folk duo that, to Llewyn’s barely concealed chagrin, is beginning to enjoy some popular success. Jean and Llewyn, we gather, have just broken off a clandestine affair, and as she furiously informs him in an early scene, she’s now pregnant with a child that she would keep if she could only be sure it wasn’t the offspring of such an abrasive, irresponsible jerk. (“You know the expression ‘it takes two to tango’?” asks Llewyn. “Fuck you,” she explains.)
Over the bleak, wintry week or so the film chronicles, we witness Llewyn sabotaging his own success in countless small ways. After playing guitar on a ridiculous novelty song written by Jim (an excuse for a raucously funny studio scene with Girls’ Adam Driver as an eccentric backup singer), Llewyn signs away a shot at royalties in order to get the cash right away. Later, he tells his aggrieved working-class sister (Jeanine Serralles) to throw out a box of belongings that turns out to contain the merchant-marine license he’ll need to get an actual job. The son of a lifelong sailor, Llewyn has done a few tours at sea himself, leaving him a shade sadder and wiser than most of the middle-class folkie kids he’s surrounded by. When he visits his now-senile father in a dreary nursing home (and sings the stone-faced old man a shattering rendition of Ewan MacColl’s “Shoals of Herring”), he gets a chilling glimpse of what the future holds for those who never make it big. But even if Llewyn can find it in himself to give up his dream of folk singing, is there anything else this glum, socially inept, uncompromising-to-a-fault artist is suited to do?