Folk singer Llewyn Davis is unique in Ethan and Joel Coen’s pantheon of characters: he is selfish, unpleasant, ungrateful, self-righteous and self-destructive. He strongly believes in the integrity of what he does while taking advantage of others. He is, though, one hell of a performer. Llewyn plays a mean guitar and his voice is soulful, gritty, full of heartbreak. His fall from whatever little grace he has enjoyed so far will be hard and far from humbling.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is the story of that fall. It takes place over the course of one week in 1961, a time of transition for the music industry in general and American folk music in particular. Folk musicians and ethnographers like Dave Van Ronk (on whom the character of Llewyn Davis is very loosely based) were laying the groundwork for the folk-rock revolution that would soon follow. Llewyn Davis (Cuban-Guatemalan actor Oscar Isaac) is not exactly an ethnographer and he most definitely won’t be as influential as Van Ronk. Llewyn is just one of many young American singers who saw folk music as a way to rebel against the more square society of the Eisenhower era.
Part of the duo Timlin & Davis before his partner jumped off a bridge, Llewyn has recorded a solo album for a down-and-out record label. Its sale numbers are quite pathetic. Llewyn ekes out an existence playing the occasional gig at dusty cafés like the Gaslight and crashing on friends’ couches while seducing their girlfriends. It’s precisely at the Gaslight where we first meet Llewyn as he sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”; after, he gets the crap beaten out of him in an alley next to the café by an aggrieved stranger. The movie thereafter turns into one long episodic flashback where the gods of chance play one nasty trick after another on Llewyn.
After crashing at the home of Columbia University professor Mitch Gorfein (Ethan Phillips) and his wife Lillian (Robin Bartlett), Llewyn accidentally lets their pet cat out of their now locked apartment. Guitar and cat in hand, Llewyn crashes in folk couple Jean and Jim’s apartment (played, respectively, by Carey Mulligan in a sadly underwritten role, and Justin Timberlake) to discover that the couch has been promised to soldier/folk singer Troy. Llewyn accidentally lets the cat escape the following morning and looses him. He also learns that Jean is pregnant with his child and must now pay for an abortion even though no royalty checks have come in; discovers that a former girlfriend decided to skip an abortion and keep his child after all, moving back with her parents in Akron, Ohio; secures a recording gig singing backup for Jim for a satiric single; recovers the cat, returns it to the Gorfeins, and causes a scene when Lillian starts to sing along with him. And, by the way, he returned the wrong cat. But, wait, the gods are not done with him.
Act Two takes Llewyn Davis to Chicago where he hopes to secure an audition with folk music empresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). He hitches a ride with jazz musician and heroin addict Roland Turner (John Goodman playing a character who, in his gait and girth, bears an uncanny resemblance to Orson Welles’ police captain Hank Quinlan in “Touch of Evil”) and beat poet and actor Johnny Five (Garrett Hendlund). The movie turns into the weirdest, most mundane road trip in the history of cinema…and quite frankly the most accurate portrait of a road trip among strangers ever put on celluloid or a digital chip. The Coens beautifully capture the banality of such long trips: the need to tell stories to pass the time, the bathroom stops, the dark, unlit roads. The trip leads to a final reckoning for Davis as he finally meets Grossman. His judgment is brutally honest. It’s all downhill from now on for Llewyn.
But, unfortunately, you cannot feel sorry for our flawed hero. And therein lies my greatest problem with “Inside Llewyn Davis”: he is a character you don’t care much for. The Coens have created far more interesting, flawed, full-of-themselves characters than Llewyn Davis: Barton Fink in the movie of the same name; Ulysses Everett Mc Gill in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (a movie which could be considered a musical companion piece and dramatic polar opposite to “Inside Llewyn Davis”) and Larry Gopnik from “A Serious Man” immediately come to mind. But Llewyn is one disagreeable fellow.
Isaac, however, delivers an uncompromising and honest performance, one that finally brings him centerstage after playing so many supporting roles in films like “Che,” “Agora” and “Drive.” Isaac refuses to soften Llewyn’s edges: he punctuates Llewyn’s arrogance and abrasiveness; his pleas possess this puppy-like quality that he immediately undermines with the wrong reaction. Isaac understands that Llewyn lacks an anchor: personal, professional and emotional. He is adrift out of his own choosing. A musician and singer himself, Isaac walks a fine line during the film’s musical performances (all shot live): by staying in character as he sings. The voice may be Isaac’s but the pain expressed in these songs is Llewyn’s.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” superficially captures the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 60s (Dave van Ronk’s ex-wife, Terri Thal, details how badly the Coens capture this era in this magnificent piece for the Village Voice). The photography and the production design may be spot on, but what drove these men and women to grab a guitar or a dulcimer and sing and maybe even write songs? How were they treated by the recording industry? We get a glimpse here and there but I think the Coens are using this era as a mere backdrop to explore the dark soul of an artist and the price he pays for his integrity and his bad behavior.
Thanks to T. Bone Burnett’s exquisite ear, the songs from this era come alive for a whole new generation in the voices of these actors (to hear Timberlake sing without the need of any of those digital knickknacks that embellish his talent in the recording studio is a real treat). The movie comes alive whenever Isaac or his fellow cast members pick up the guitar or stand in front of a microphone. Their voices alone transport us to the beginning of one of the most exciting periods in the history of American music. They more than make up for some of the film’s flaws.