With Inside Llewyn Davis, there’s little doubt that Joel and Ethan Coen got what they were after. Exactly what that end result is, however, isn’t entirely clear. The brothers present a fully realized 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene and populate it with familiar musical characters, but a plodding narrative and a mystifying final act undo much of its charm. Likewise difficult is a deep sadness and lack of likable characters, though the lasting power such a storm produces is not easily forgotten.
The film centers on the titular Dave Van Ronk stand-in, played with a steady scowl by Oscar Isaac. Beginning with a full-song performance of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the famed Gaslight Cafe, the Coens establish Llewyn as a talented singer and guitar player, then elicit sympathy by having this seemingly nice guy get beat up in the back alley for apparently no reason. The hero set-up continues with this luckless fellow spending the night on the couch of his professor friend Mitch Gorfein (Ethan Phillips), then reaches a fever pitch when the Gorfeins’ cat escapes and, with no key and no one in the building willing to help, Llewyn becomes the pet’s temporary guardian.
Carrying the little orange guy around New York, Llewyn walks the city’s snowy streets and rides its subways cued to his and deceased former partner Mike Timlin’s version of “Dink’s Song,” looking every bit like a PETA spokesman and seemingly bound for some sort of comeuppance. Sweet though the sequence is, it’s arguably the film’s last uplifting one. Faced with numerous opportunities of love and kindness, each time Llewyn has a chance to make a turn for the positive he scratches and rejects the affection offered to him. Be it at the Gorfeins’ dining room table or with his fellow folkies, he behaves the opposite of how one would hope and the resultant melancholic frustration with this behavior is surprisingly tough to stomach even for a Coen film.
Pretty much Llewyn’s only redemptive quality is his music, and even that doesn’t take long before it becomes a chore. One of the main points of Inside Llewyn Davis seems to be the repetitious and often gimmicky nature of folk music, and in this representation the Coens are thorough. None of Llewyn’s peers play with his level of soul, beginning with dull soldier boy Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), whose bland solo stage presence doesn’t improve in a vanilla trio with Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan, oddly underused). Then there’s a different though just as empty side of Jim as evidenced through the Llewyn-aided studio session for “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” a hilariously cheesy number peppered with goofy sound effects and silly verbal cues by wannabe cowboy singer Al Cody (Adam Driver).
In typical cruelly ironic Coen fashion, each of these acts naturally go over well with the industry’s inept decision-makers while Llewyn languishes in obscurity. By the time elderly autoharpist Elizabeth Hobby (Nancy Blake) makes her way from Arkansas to grace the Gaslight stage with her homely mediocrity, the audience is as ready to show its disgust as Llewyn. At that point, one’s spirits have also been damaged by a lengthy, purgatorial road trip to Chicago with a near silent Garrett Hedlund and a mean-spirited yet occasionally funny John Goodman.
After hanging with characters like these for not even two hours, it’s no wonder Dylan bolted from this scene after roughly three years. The kinds of people and the cyclical nature of it all (as further suggested by a timeline-folding finale with too many inaccuracies to fully line up) would make any self-aware artist burn bridges with the help of an electric guitar. A late appearance by Zimmy himself, singing a tune eerily close to Llewyn’s, hints at the success his uncompromising predecessor will likely never attain and brings the hopelessness full circle. Bravo to the Coens for so fully conveying such a mood, but it’s not exactly a joy to experience.
Rated R for language including some sexual references.
Most folk and rock musicians I have met are assholes, especially to non-musicians.
“Likeability” is a superficial quality, a social fiction maintained to conceal the dysfunctions and rages that are *part* of the core of most people’s identity. This movie doesn’t bother with those facades, and lets us see all these people’s least publicly polished facets. It’s true that you can’t unreservedly root for the “hero” of this movie, but I don’t think you’re not supposed to, you’re just supposed to be dragged along the bumpy, not-very-pleasant journey along with him.
I think that how unpleasant or “depressing” a viewer find that journey might have something to do with how relatively challenging or unpleasant or dysfunctional their own life might have been. I think it feels very different to people who have tried to live from their art, or wrestled with difficult financial times, chronic medical issues, addictions, mental health challenges, or just bad dumb luck that yes, you contributed to but you still don’t feel like you deserved. I thought the movie felt like stumbling through life … neither uplifting nor depressing, and I suspect that critics who find it to be the latter might be organized, long-term planning types who generally have their shit together and few, if any, personal vices.
I also think that the first scene was the last scene, just with different editing, and that you’re not supposed to think it’s all a circle, but to realize that the movie had been a journey *to* this point, rather than away from it.
I think people might generally be more accepting of the film if they know ahead of time that one may not sympathize with the protagonist. It’s almost a negative image of ‘O Brother’ which I think many people, myself included, expected it to be like. I think I’ll enjoy a second viewing more knowing this going in.
I’m still trying to figure out the ending. While I don’t think the Coen cannon contains a film with a cyclical ending, I kind of like the Sisyphean absurdity of the protagonist not actually going anywhere over the course of the movie, and bound to repeat all the same mistakes.