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

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Dec. 5 2013 5:03 PM

Inside Llewyn Davis

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

Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis.
Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis

Courtesy of CBS Films

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.

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

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.)

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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?

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

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.

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