With Inside Llewyn Davis, the Brothers Coen beautifully and mournfully recreate a specific time and place—Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961 to be exact. However, despite the level of research and obvious authenticity that went into framing this gorgeous portrait, its canvas is ultimately something far more universal and wistful: the face of artistic failure. Inside Llewyn Davisplaces its titular protagonist’s soul at the center of the pre-Bob Dylan folk music scene. The Coens even enlist T-Bone Burnett, the country and Americana musician who once toured with the fabled Billy Boy Grunt, to construct a revue of folk songs from a style that then only looked backward. As such, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a tragic hero, a man courageously standing with a genre that’s already ashen with age, waiting for its phoenix-like rebirth. One could even wonder if Llewyn’s desperate grip on the sounds of the past would be more gamely admired today where a reverence for the “retro” is rewarded (if more in Bushwick than the gentrified Village of the 21st century). In any event, Mr. Davis has already lost in the opening shot, with only the artist’s pride preventing him from saying die. As snow falls in New York’s Washington Square Park, Llewyn is a singer-songwriter before that was considered a quality. On his luckiest nights, he plays his reinterpreted music, some ballads as old as the Welsh name his father bestowed him, to mildly respectful audiences at the Gaslight Café, a tiny coffee shop in a MacDougal Street basement. On all nights, he finds himself bumming a couch to crash on from acquaintance to acquaintance. Llewyn is fiercely independent and disdainful of the careerist lifestyle. His father worked for 40 years and now enjoys a retirement that is out of this world, though his body remains in a dingy nursing home. For Llewyn it is all about the music and finding a way to convey his own sound to a world that is so apprehensive that it doesn’t care he lacks an address. While his moodiness is excused as an artistic temperament, it allots him only three semi-friends. One of which was his singing partner who recently threw himself off the George Washington Bridge, while the other two are the far more popularly idolized Jean and Jim (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake). It is in Jean and Jim’s Lilliputian downtown apartment that Llewyn finds himself most often sleeping, if only on the floor because he arrives unannounced, and sometimes with a cat he accidentally borrowed from his two singular fans, Columbia University professors on the Upper West Side. However, this arrangement with the folksy duo is also coming to a conclusion because Jean is pregnant and Llewyn might be the father. In other words, Llewyn will be paying for his second abortion in two years. Inside Llewyn Davis is about a defining week with an artist whose life trajectory is one of circular bitterness. Eventually Llewyn does go on a sort of mythic journey of self-discovery to Chicago with a thunderous jazz musician (John Goodman) and a beatnik (Garrett Hedlund) for the hope of wooing an actual music producer played by F. Murray Abraham. The actor who once played Salieri is marvelous with his permanently bemused grin awaiting all forlorn talent that walks through his door. This man is NOT the Patron Saint of Mediocrity. Yet, there is nothing mediocre about Llewyn Davis’ tunes. Indeed, the music throughout the film is fabulous. One song of particular note that’s played like a recurring motif over the course of the picture is “Farewell” (also known as “Fare Thee Well”). Construed within the film as a Llewyn Davis original that he arranged with his gravity-challenged musical partner, the piece was actually written by Bob Dylan sometime in the early 1960s when he was also playing at the Gaslight. This is known because he recorded the melody in 1963 during early studio sessions for the album The Times They Are a-Changin’…before shelving the song as incomplete. It sat on that shelf (not counting bootlegs) until its first official release in 2010. Likewise, Llewyn Davis has placed himself on a shelf. He is played with remarkable vitality and passion by Isaac who embodies the agonizing frenzy of choosing a directionless direction. He is too proud to accept any offer of building upon his talent, for to do so would be to accept its limitations. Nearly always the most interesting thing on the screen in his past films, Isaac’s defiant hopelessness is informed by a Northern gray that paints a period New York under a sheet of monochrome to go with its snow. Still, the Coen Brothers are true to their iconoclastic Americana. All their films are drilled into singular moments of the American psyche, yet are also near uniformly defined by an audible folksiness whether in the backwoods or urban cityscapes. Here too one can find that charming bluntness that meanders throughout their filmography. The scene that feels the most homey is, unsurprisingly, the cross-country vignette where frequent collaborator Goodman appears. Hedlund too is fine in these scenes where he would seem to have just stepped off the set of On the Road, but Goodman and Isaac are uproarious as the dueling representatives of jazz and folk. I have to wonder if the irony in a jazz musician condescending to a folk singer’s career prospects, as one genre would soon be on its deathbed and the other would transform into a still-vibrantly popular niche, was present when Joel and Ethan Coen penned their screenplay. Also getting poignant zingers in at Llewyn’s expense is Mulligan’s Jean. While I still question whether Mulligan could pass as a Bohemian artist, I never doubt her palpable anger with a man so frustrating that she’d abort a perfectly good child she would otherwise keep. “You should be wearing condom on condom, then wrap it in electric tape.”
Inside Llewyn Davis is a mesmerizing and labored tribute to a particular New York minute that felt fleeting even then. Greater still, it is a testament to the soul of an artist in a setting that is refreshingly free from the soft padding of assured success. The film may be loosely inspired by Dave Van Ronk’s posthumous memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, but this fictional narrative is far more intimate and honest than any musical biopic ever released. It finds a beauty not just in folk, but in failure. For that reason, it strangely succeeds at being one of the year’s best. Den of Geek Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars***This article was first published on September 26, 2013.