You probably knew someone like Llewyn Davis. Perhaps they have a semi-popular electro blog. Maybe instead they were in a hardcore band in the ‘80s who supported Black Flag that one time. Or in a post-punk group that never quite hit it big. They’re talented, but not as talented as they think they are. They seem to view anyone else with any kind of musical ability as a fraud or a sellout. They’re perpetually adjacent to greatness without achieving it. You see them at shows, and then you only see them when they need to borrow money, and then you don’t see them at all.
Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t a generic portrait of any old place and time. It’s a specific portrait of a specific place and time; Greenwich Village, 1961, on the cresting wave of folk music. It tells the story a week in the life of Llewyn Davis as he wanders from apartment to apartment, sleeping on couches and looking for his big break. Directors Joel & Ethan Coen don’t portray the film as a dreary period piece. It might look like an old photograph, but there’s a matter-of-factness to the film that avoids the staleness endemic in films trying to “capture” a certain era. This means the film feels incredibly real, like you’re looking through a portal into the New York City of the sixties.
That matter-of-factness is aided by the way Inside Llewyn Davis uses its soundtrack. There’s a lot of music, performed live by Oscar Isaac and occasionally his friends, if that’s the word, played by the like of Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan. It’s a great soundtrack, and this is coming from someone who’s not a fan of folk music at all. But the Coens never use music in the movie without a diegetic tether. When Davis plays a record in an Upper West Side apartment, it might impossibly carry to the next scene, but the Coens avoid sad violins or dramatic drumming to compel emotion. It contributes to the sense that we’re simply watching this man’s unfortunate life unfold before us.
The film avoids a traditional three-act-structure. There’s no second act revelation or an antagonist to overcome, except perhaps for Davis’s own stubborn pride and his bad habits. He swims against the tide, fighting against a spiral of poverty that threatens to submerge his dreams of musical stardom. Oscar Isaac is excellent in the role. He’s shabby and irritable, but there’s a warmth behind his eyes, an insecure vibrancy that too often is expressed in disdain.
There are two lines in the film that give insight into – inside – Llewyn Davis. One is Davis’s description of his view of the future: “flying cars and hotels on the moon and Tang.” At first I took this as an indictment of his reluctance to think about the future, but that’s not quite right. Rather, he can only see the future as somewhere he succeeds, somewhere where he makes it to the moon. The other line is delivered by Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), describing another singer with a brighter future than Llewyn. “Troy Nelson,” he explains, “connects with people.”
Inside Llewyn Davis is a cold film, not just in the way it depicts extreme cold, snowflakes dancing in gusts of wind, but in the steadfast refusal of the film to embrace its audience. The moments of warmth or levity – like the wonderful, joyful performance of “Please Mr Kennedy” by Isaac, Timberlake and Adam Driver – are eagerly consumed by an audience like neglected children.
Don’t let me mislead you into thinking the film is a dreary slog, though. While it’s a very pessimistic film, it’s still funny and moving. There’s a lot of black comedy here; John Goodman in particular is superb as a bilious, bitter man who accompanies Llewyn on a road trip to Chicago. And while Llewyn might not be the most likable protagonist, you still sympathise with his plight and the many difficult decisions he faces over the course of the film – though you’re probably not going to agree with the choices he makes. Though he may not be able to connect with his audience, Inside Llewyn Davis has no such problems.