American movies are littered with stories of artists trying make their way through the world, serving their muse and by obvious extension, their art. These films, mostly biopics such as “Ray” and “Walk the Line” contrive the plight of their gifted protagonists, as we see how their art is strengthened and defined by the world around them and the people they meet.
“Inside Llewyn Davis,” although it is a completely fictional account of the titular also-ran folk singer played by the extraordinary Oscar Isaac, finds writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen putting the kibosh on any notion of traditional artistic perseverance. The Coens never make it easy for their characters, who in turn don’t exactly do a lot to help themselves and this magnificent film, one of the duo’s very best, is no exception.
So who is Llewyn Davis? Llewyn is having a difficult time figuring that out himself, in the harsh New York City winter in 1961. We first meet him at the legendary Gaslight Cafe, the cramped, smoke-filled room that was the hub of the early 60’s folk music revival. Llewyn is up on stage singing a song called “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” Oscar Isaac has a piercing, vulnerable tenor that captures the resignation in this song; this is the story of a man who has given up on his place in the world. Davis can sympathize; his singing partner Mike Timlin has recently died, and Davis gets beaten up in an alley behind the cafe by a mysterious figure.
But Llewyn isn’t a criminal or a half-wit like a lot of other protagonists in the Coens’ work. Llewyn Davis is actually a bit of a prick. His first solo album is dead in the water, and he spends his nights going from couch to couch in apartments belonging to people who barely tolerate him, specifically his ex-girlfriend Jean (a volcanic Carey Mulligan, spewing profanity like bullets), who casually informs him that she may be pregnant with Llewyn’s child and wants an abortion as soon as possible.
Llewyn is clearly talented; having the gorgeous soundtrack curated by T-Bone Burnett doesn’t hurt. He goes on about how folk music needs to be pure, that commerce isn’t his main goal. He acts like his art has no price, but that doesn’t stop him from singing backup on “Please Mr. Kennedy,” the brilliantly awful, paranoid farce of a song written by Jean’s new boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake, his high nasally croon fitting this folk setting like a glove). Mr. Davis is one of countless musicians through the generations who have failed to realize that art and commerce have always been intertwined. Artists who have an inflated notion of their own authenticity, usually don’t have a lot of walking around money. Llewyn’s only companion is the stubborn cat belonging to his old friends the Gorfeins, which the film gleefully suggests is a symbol for Llewyn’s plight but never actually becomes one.
Llewyn Davis is a man out of time, money, friends, collaborators, etc. That’s who he is in the context of his small little world. But who is he in the sense that the Coen brothers, feel the need to chronicle this specific world, at this specific time? It could be because Joel and Ethan are two wise-ass Jewish kids from Minnesota, and the New York folk scene in 1961 was about to be turned upside down by another wise-ass Jewish kid from Minnesota, thus changing the fortunes of countless real-life Llewyn Davis’? Is is about a man who doesn’t realize that being an artist doesn’t excuse you from the responsibilities that the less-enlightened “squares” have to deal with every day?
It could be all of these things, it could be just empty projection. Llewyn might be the cat, he might not be. The Coens like to get philosophical in their work, but never in this specific fashion. “Inside Llewyn Davis” most resembles “Barton Fink,” the Coens’ 1991 masterpiece that found another unlikable artist in a New York screenwriter played by John Turturro, who was crippled by writer’s block because he closed himself off to the common men around him (personified by John Goodman, who also appears in this film as a heroine-addicted jazz snob who abhors folk music). That film found the filmmaking duo literally spewing Hellfire and allegorical allusions to the rise of fascism to get their point across. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a much quieter, more wistful movie. Fink was a hack, his writer’s block being born out of his ignorance of the world around him, thus rendering him with nothing to say. Davis doesn’t have writer’s block; he has a category of gorgeous folk songs (expertly used in interludes that reveal more about these characters and bring on emotional breakthroughs previously unseen in the Coens’ filmography, but still laced with their own brand of arsenic). He has existence block, dismissing anything outside of his art, not realizing until he goes on a trek to Chicago to meet with a powerful record executive (F. Murray Abraham) that art and commence are always intertwined, the music business being…an actual business.
This film may look aimless, as we watched this bearded misanthrope bum around Greenwich Village trying make some money and find a bed to sleep in. But this film, apart from the endless philosophical and thematic readings that can be found within the soft-focus beauty of the world cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel makes out of New York City, has the reliable pleasures found in all of the Coen brothers’ work. The dialogue which comes at a rhythm set to a time scale no other screenwriter can crack. The memorable faces and hilarious supporting turns (particularly from Stark Sands from an impossibly earnest Army cadet and Garrett Hedlund as a Kerouac-esque loner who represents the culture shock about to hit the folk scene), the immaculately structured story, the touches of surrealism in the scenes that bookend the film and the great performances, particularly by Oscar Isaac in what should be a breakout role, bringing misanthropic grace to this starving artist.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” isn’t just about failure; it deals with how failure is born, whether it’s out of losing your musical collaborator, ignoring the realities of your chosen field, brushing aside the needs and wants of the people around you. It’s appropriate that “Like a Rolling Stone,” a song Bob Dylan (who makes an appearance of sorts at the end of the film) wrote after leaving acoustic folk in the dust, describes Davis quite well: out on his own, like a complete unknown, no direction home. But the Coens portray this man’s plight with strange wisdom, not lunatic subjugation like in their early work. That’s one of countless reasons why “Inside Llewyn Davis” is one of their greatest achievements.