Clear as folk
Joel and Ethan Coen have made bleaker films than Inside Llewyn Davis—the god’s capricious wrath ending of A Serious Man and the viruslike venality that infects No Country for Old Men certainly spring to mind. Yet they have never produced anything remotely this melancholy, and it turns out that somber is a flattering tone for them.
Set in a slightly fablelike version of the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene, Inside Llewyn Davis is inspired by early Bob Dylan (the man and the music, so to speak), while exuding the Coens’ usual oddball comedic sensibility and stylistic verve. The character of struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis is played by Oscar Isaac in a breakthrough performance, as he naturally inhabits the role in a way actors rarely do with the Coen brothers.
When the film opens, Llewyn awakens in the spare bedroom of an above-his-station East Village apartment. We quickly understand that this peripatetic couch surfing is a defining element of Llewyn’s personality, an expression of his simultaneous yearning for and alienation from family life and creature comforts. It’s a situation that seems to have been exacerbated by the relatively recent death of his former partner Mike, which has led Llewyn to start an unsuccessful solo career.
The folk and, eventually, hippie revolution that Dylan helped inspire was in part about a rejection of conformity, and often by extension a rejection of partnerships, and of the bonds of family. Early on, Llewyn has to scrape together money to fund an abortion, and for the second time, here for the wife (Carey Mulligan) of a nebbishy folk-singer colleague, played surprisingly well by Justin Timberlake.
Over the course of the picture, Llewyn is shadowed by a succession of orange tabbies, and the stray cats become both a running gag and the film’s spirit animals. The rootless cockiness of the cats is an easy symbol for Llewyn’s moody narcissism, but the Coens play it with a light enough hand. Llewyn proudly claims to the people who let him crash at their homes that music is his way “to pay the rent and put food on the table,” much in the way that lazy cats believe they own their human benefactors.
More than anything, this is a gorgeous movie, and it shows that even the Coens’ ability to visualize a particular time and place as both tangible and slightly dreamlike without resorting to imitation or nostalgia has matured over the years. Compare the narrow Greenwich Village hallways and smoky nightclubs in Inside Llewyn Davis to the oppressive overdecorated and winking archness of their 1950s-set The Hudsucker Proxy.
Given the abundance of T-Bone Burnett songs (the soundtrack mixes new tunes and standards in every shade of preplugged-in folk, including an Irish ballad, a Carter Family-esque Ozark gothic, and a novelty song about space travel), many will compare this to O Brother, Where Art Thou? However, Inside Llewyn Davis has none of the garish humor and shrill symbolism of that extremely unfunny and unpleasant movie. The real ancestor to Inside Llewyn Davis in the Coen catalogue is their excellent Barton Fink.
That 1991 Palme d’Or winner offered one of the most damning portraits of artistic soullessness ever put on film. Their Fink is an underdeveloped and overhyped playwright brought to Hollywood by bottom-line scrapers looking for a touch of prestige, then sent to work on a brainless genre flick, as he all the while longs to tell the story of the “common man” he knows and cares nothing about.
To borrow a notable line from the film, Barton Fink showed us “the life of the mind,” but Inside Llewyn Davis presents us the life of a yearning and defeated heart. Unlike Barton, Llewyn clearly possesses some talent, as evidenced by Burnett’s excellent arrangements and Isaac’s capable vocals. In the Coens’ eyes, that makes his boorish egomania no more or less forgivable than it does with a clueless nitwit like Fink, but it does makes Llewyn an almost tragic figure of isolation and loneliness.
It would appear that the Coen brothers have grown both less forgiving and more merciful with age.