Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a somber American tale following the titular Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) set within 1961’s New York City folk scene. The Coen brothers, obviously, are masters of cinema with an unmistakable creative voice and skill. Here again, as in “O’ Brother, Where Art Thou?”, the duo return to an American landscape of music synonymous with a certain time and place. This time around, the odyssey belongs to Llewyn Davis, a down-on-his-luck folk singer in Greenwich Village who survives the cold winter months mostly due to the hospitality of friends and neighbors in the upper west side. We first find Llewyn at the Gaslight cafe giving an evocative performance of melancholy mood and airy atmosphere.
After a stirring rendition of an age old folk tale “Hang me, Oh Hang me”, the beleaguered Llewyn is told by the bartender that a friend is waiting for him outside. Que the snarky and sarcastic singer getting beatdown by a shadowy figure for reasons that are initially unknown. Llewyn awakens the next morning on the couch of some wealthy academic friends, the Gorfeins, and heads out after recouping momentarily- but not before accidentally letting their cat escape! Having locked the door on his way out, he grabs the Gorfeins’ cat and heads to the apartment of his friends’ Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan)- though their relationship to Llewyn is strenuous at best. Hoping to stay a night on their couch, with cat in tow, Llewyn is met with polite simmering rage by Jean who has two pieces of bad news for him. First, that the couch had already been offered to a soldier in town for a few musical gigs before heading back to the service, but more importantly, Jean’s pregnant and it could be Llewyn’s unborn child. Jean can’t discern whether the father is truly Llewyn, or Jim to which she is engaged. Llewyn’s allowed to stay, on the floor, after hashing it out with Jean and swearing to pay for her abortion- with money he doesn’t have. Cue another morning of mounting anxieties and you’ll begin to understand the crushing existence that Llewyn lives, right as he watches the Gorfeins’ Cat leap out Jean’s open window and scampering off into wild bluster of the city.
This propels the wandering Llewyn to chase down the cat and it seems as though each step brings him closer to failure or the ultimate sin for artists, giving in to financial pressure. We get a lot of background information about Llewyn through his interactions with those aware of his past and of him encountering those from his past, notably his family and those who knew that he was part of a musical folk duo- that is, until his partner Mike jumped off a bridge. Through Llewyn’s sister and father, there’s a sense of practicality over expression, and a lot of Llewyn’s stubbornness to continue struggling for his art stems from the anxiety and dread he experiences when visiting his father late in the film- which was the push he needed to follow through with a life he wanted versus a life of regret. It’s not necessarily explicitly said in this scene, but you can sense the nature of it. What I really found inspiring in this film is exactly that, Llewyn’s innate nature to get back up after being knocked down, no matter the severity of blows that life throws at him. I’m skipping a bit here to my personal consensus about the film overall, but that’s because the journey that this film, and Llewyn himself, are going on is a great one and I don’t intend to spoil the whole damn thing for any of you out there. There’s a lot of small aspects of the movie that have endeared me to it. The world that Llewyn resides in has a desaturated color palette of cold blues and greens that give it a texture akin to a furled and beaten paperback novel. This analog world of the early 1960’s is lit with soft and full lighting when focused on any of the musical performances throughout the film, while a crisp and harsher eye is applied to scenes shot outside, within small and cramped New York City apartments, the dark and grimy alleyways, or the humorously narrow hallways like the one Llewyn and Adam Driver’s Al Cody squeeze past each other at one point. Which brings me to the performances. As with every and all Coen Brothers films, the deadpan, sarcastic, heartening, and unique nature of the characters involved ties the film together with a bow only Ethan and Joel Coen could craft so neatly. Justin Timberlake’s Jim holds no resemblance to the world famous singer, if only through vocal talent- Carey Mulligan is poise perfect with a grumpy under-pinning that makes her “Jean” feel like a real person with dreams and purpose. There’s also, yes, a John Goodman cameo as an aging Jazz man critically destroyed by a Heroin addiction and a nasty case of spite and bitterness. Goodman’s paired with a similar yet opposite side of failure with musicians in Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), a quiet poet who’s controlled by an older cynic in the industry, from failure breeds further failure. Llewyn stumbles across these two when deciding to hitch-hike to Chicago to see how the record he’d put out after Mike’s death was any good and to see if he could audition for the studio owner. It’s this audition that drives Llewyn back home to New York City, and ultimately back to the Gaslight Cafe.
While some may find this film a bit too Melancholy for their taste, I’d recommend watching (or maybe re-watching) and focusing on how Llewyn navigates his troubles and how nothing seems to stop him. Even though his failures do have an affect on him, he doesn’t let those failures define him, he picks himself back up and goes forward. There’s a wistful nature about the film that suggests that part of the joy of the struggle is the unknown element and pure expression of it all. There are deep undercurrents of the authenticity versus commercialism debate that everyone who’s ever wanted to, or tried to, live off of their art knows full well. Maybe that’s why I was so struck by the beauty of this film’s circular storytelling. At the end of the film Llewyn is back where he started, singing at the Gaslight Cafe and getting beaten up in the alley. Every artist, failed, successful, or otherwise- knows this cycle all too well and it’s a welcome nod to those who keep going for it. Oscar Issac came on the scene in a big way with this film and if you’ve only ever seen him in the recent Star Wars movies, then I suggest giving this one a watch.
Final Score: 2 Cats, 1 Roadtrip
*Check out this video essay on the film! Caution, there are spoilers for the film within the video: