The Coen Brothers make movies that are a hard sell to mainstream movie audiences and Inside Llewyn Davis is no different. The movie is about a folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village who can’t seem to realize his musical dreams. What makes this movie so difficult is that it is set up ans executed like a folk song, as it rambles on and sees Llewyn Davis drift through life, on down the road and back again. It is not a complete narrative tale as much as it is a series of events in the lone cold winter of one man’s life.
At the end of the day, this is a nice companion piece to Oh Brother Where Art Thou while also sharing much in common with Barton Fink, as we are asked to follow an unlikable leading man who thinks much more of himself and his craft than anyone else around him does.
Llewyn Davis is a folk singer who was once part of a duo with a singing partner who committed suicide. He is now friends with another singer named Jim (Justin Timberlake), and while the two have a very different outlook on music, they remain friends, although Jim’s woman Jean (Carey Mulligan) hates everything about Llewyn and is never afraid to speak her mind and unleash her vengeful accusations at Llewyn. Out of the three, Jim is the only one with redeeming qualities, although he is almost a buffoon, a classic Coen Brothers trick of making the most pure characters in their stories into virtual laughing stocks and jokes.
Jean is impossible to emphasize with, which makes it easy to side with Llewyn for at least a short time. Apparently, she cheated on Jim with Llewyn, which makes her pregnancy a problem because she doesn’t know who the father is and blames Llewyn for everything. Luckily, Llewyn knows an abortion doctor who he used before and does the right thing, although Jean will never forgive him for having sex with her.
That is pretty much the story of Llewyn’s life in this movie. Everything he does turns out wrong. He is homeless and has a number of friends who are willing to give him a place to sleep, but he treats everyone so poorly that he just rotates through couches until he circles back to those who forgive him. He is a self destructive character who blames everyone and everything but himself, treating those who care about him so badly that he deserves all the karma he receives.
That is what this movie is about – people who can’t take responsibility for their own shortcomings. For Llewyn, his biggest problem is that he wants to be a pure folk singer in an era where no one cares. Despite the fact that everyone tells him that he needs to change his style if he wants to succeed, he refuses and insults anyone who goes with the grain, whether it is his friend Jim or a kind military simpleton named Troy who sings a more popular style of music. As far as Llewyn is concerned, he knows what he considers true art in music and everything else is garbage.
It is that music that really makes this movie shine. The film starts off with Llewyn Davis sitting in a small, half empty club, singing the Van Ronk song “Hang Me Oh Hang Me” and the movie concludes with the same scene. Along the way, we get some decent folk music as produced by Oscar winning composer T-Bone Burnett. In the middle of the movie, you also get a hilarious song written by the character Jim called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a song performed by Jim, Llewyn and Adam Driver’s Al Cody that will leave a smile on anyone but the most unenthusiastic individual. It is a perfect example of how, even in the most downer of movies, the Coen Brothers understand the importance of humor.
Along the way, Llewyn hitches a ride with a junkie blues singer played by John Goodman, who travels with his personal valet, a greaser named Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), for a trip that seems completely disconnected from the rest of the film. While that would never work in a mainstream film, in a Coen Brothers film, it all makes perfect sense and is just another verse in the folk song of Llewyn Davis’ life.
This is a movie that loves to kick dirt in the face of Llewyn Davis, and that is where the comparison to Barton Fink lies. Both men are pure artists. Barton is a playwright who feels that movie writing is below him. Llewyn Davis is a folk singer who feels mainstream pop music is below him. Yet, despite all their failures, they still come to the end of the story never learning a life’s lesson and still feeling like they were dealt a bad hand that they never deserved.
The telling moment in this film comes when Llewyn Davis visits his ailing father in a retirement home and plays a song for him. Just when he feels that he gave the one person who he felt would believe in him something special, his father gives him something unexpected in return.
That is what Inside Llewyn Davis is about at the end of the day. Llewyn is a Coen Brothers character who sets out with high expectations, only to get the piss taken out of him at every step, and then comes out at the end never learning anything. I mentioned that the movie ends with Llewyn Davis singing the same song he did at the start of the film. That is how his life plays out in this movie – one giant circle with no sign of a satisfying conclusion and the feeling that Llewyn Davis will never, ever, figure out what is wrong with his life. If you love the Coen Brothers, this film should be right up your alley.