There are stories of triumph, stories of redemption, stories of loss. I’ve seen enough Coen Brothers movies to know that I shouldn’t expect their work to be easily classifiable along such lines. Even though the CoBros (no good?) often work in familiar genres, their themes and storylines are challenging and unpredictable. Inside Llewyn Davis is certainly one of these films. As I now consider it, one theme consistent throughout the Coens’ career is the idea that the worlds they create couldn’t care less about the plight of the individuals in their films. Their characters get no special treatment. Not even loveable pregnant Margie Gunderson is spared from the violent undercurrent that so often underpins the Coens’ worlds.
Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac), our eponymous anti-hero, is trapped. Llewyn is a talented singer-songwriter, trying to make his bones in 1961 Greenwich Village, barely scraping by on his friends’ generosity and sporadic gigs on stage or playing in studio bands. He has no home, but you wouldn’t exactly describe him as homeless. Indeed, when Llewyn fills out a form to receive payment for a studio gig, he seems perplexed that he doesn’t have an address to write on the form.
Llewyn’s enduring primary concern is finding a couch for the night. He can’t even afford a coat, here in the middle of winter. He can’t see past today to accept royalties for what is bound to be a big commercial hit — he needs the cash today.
We meet Llewyn in a smoke-filled coffeehouse called the Gaslight. The first shot of the film is a close-up on a microphone, held until Llewyn leans into the frame to start singing. Isaac is a lovely singer, instantly grabbing the assembled crowd’s attention with his gorgeous and sad rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” The unsteady handheld camera of the Coens and Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel immediately tell us that, despite Llewyn’s obvious and effortless talent, that this is not an easy life, he is not a stable individual. As the song continues, we cut to static shots from around the hall, the filmmakers sticking us right in there with the crowd. We are like the friends who know Llewyn up close, know how imperfect he is, but at the same time, we can sit back and admire his talent. We can forgive him his flaws while he sings his song.
Llewyn makes mistakes, sure, but his real problem is naivety. He tries to focus all possible energy on making beautiful folk music. And so he allows himself to be casually exploited and mistreated by those he trusts, used as a tool for their own purposes. Not only his agent and music-biz types, but also his supportive friends have ulterior motives. A wealthy Upper West Side patron (played by Ethan Phillips) proudly introduces Llewyn to guests as “our folk singer friend I was telling you about.” He is a party trick, asked to sing a song in exchange for a warm meal and a cozy couch.
Other friends include Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake & Carey Mulligan), a newly-successful folk couple act, to whom Llewyn seems a regular third wheel. Llewyn also spends time on the couch of Al Cody (Adam Driver), a talented nice guy folk singer who, like Llewyn, has stacks of unsold records stashed in his apartment. As competent as these performances are, they fade in my memory. The center of the movie lies in Isaac’s dark energy, a unique mixture of composed and frenetic, boiling just beneath the surface as the world puts barrier after barrier in his path.
Llewyn has the worn eyelids of a perpetual loser. Even when he does something well (performing for a prospective label boss, recovering a loose cat), it just doesn’t matter. Nothing changes for him. On the other hand, when he messes up (no spoilers), he receives the full brunt of the negative. The guy cannot catch a break.
I really want to either love or hate the character Llewyn Davis, but the movie won’t let me make a decision. Is he a pure artistic soul, to be regarded with utmost reverence? Or is he a louse, a loser, a drain on society who leaves others to clean up his messes?
The filmmakers drop us into what seems like a narrative loop. Only after careful reconstruction with my girlfriend could we decipher the timeline. But it doesn’t matter where Llewyn Davis goes or what he tries to do — he’ll always be a struggling singer-songwriter. He’ll always have a gig at the Gaslight.