Written & Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, F. Murray Abraham, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver
Screening as part of the 51st New York Film Festival on Saturday, September 28 & Saturday, October 5
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) stands on a slightly raised stage in The Gaslight, a dim underground music club. Two slim round shafts of white light slant down at him from tiny porthole-like-windows high on the stone walls. A guitar in his hands, he sings a gorgeous, glum song about pining for a hangman’s noose. “You probably heard that one before,” he says to the crowd when the song is finished. “If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” ‘Inside Llewyn Davis,’ Joel and Ethan Coen’s humble yet effective new film about a struggling folk singer, examines that statement; for Llewyn himself, does folk music offer something permanent and immutable? Or is he failing to adapt to a changing world?
The film follows an in medias res structure: Immediately after leaving the club, Llewyn is viciously punched by a man who accuses him of heckling an act at The Gaslight the previous night. The film then shows us the weeks in Llewyn’s life leading up to the assault. Llewyn (heavily inspired by real-life early sixties folk singer Dave Van Ronk) is in a rut. He is reeling from the recent suicide of his singing partner, and averse to finding a new one. He spends much of his time chasing after a runaway cat that he was charged with looking after, and fighting with his hostile ex-girlfriend, Jean (Carey Mulligan), who is intent on an abortion because the baby—might—be Lewyn’s. If she were sure it was someone else’s, Jean says, she would keep it.
Llewyn can indeed be noxious to those around him. At one point he yells at his dinner party host for encouraging him to perform a song for his guests when he preferred not to, then having the gall to sing along when he relented. Later, he flat-out forgets the date of Jean’s abortion.
Though extremely narcissistic, Llewyn constantly lets himself down. In one of the film’s most effective sequences, Llewyn hitches down to Chicago to seek out Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a prominent nightclub manager. Grossman takes Llewyn to his club, where Llewyn plays him a soft, heartfelt song. In most films, he would be hired on the spot. But this is the Coen brothers, and Grossman simply says, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Grossman suggests that he work as part of a trio with two other folk artists in his employ. But Llewyn declines, refusing to work with others. (The real Van Ronk turned down the opportunity to be “Paul” in the classic folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.) Llewyn is simply unwilling to make compromises, to adapt to a world in which a solo singer performing traditional folk songs is doomed, regardless of his talent.
So what does Llewyn’s story have to say about folk “never get[ting] old?” If the gorgeous, melancholy, emotionally penetrating folk songs sprinkled throughout the film are evidence, then yes, folk transcends time and hits on universal human emotions. But on a personal level, this simply does Llewyn no good. “Do you ever think about the future at all?” Jean barks at him accusingly. It is that inability to accept the new things around the corner—that willful refusal to adapt or compromise—that foils his advancement and success.
While the Coen brothers’ films often balance an extremely impressive mix of plot- and character-driven storytelling, “Inside Llewyn Davis” hews much more closely to the latter. Unlike the superior music-infused Coen brothers’ period piece ‘O Brother Where Art Thou,’ “Llewyn Davis” often neglects narrative momentum. While the film is an effective, heartfelt character study, it drags during some stretches.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a memorable portrait of a man who is willfully in the wrong place at the wrong time. If a young Bob Dylan’s appearance at The Gaslight near the film’s conclusion serves as any clue, the times are changing, and the musical landscape is evolving into something more personal. “He who gets hurt will be he who has stalled,” Dylan once sang. And as Llewyn decides to stand still and let the new world pass him by, all he can expect is to be laid low—by a stranger’s fist, and by life.
— David Teich