Songs of farewell and songs of perdition, songs of rambling and songs of surrender. Joel & Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis is set in New York in the winter of 1961, the peak of the folk revival that bloomed in the basket houses of Greenwich Village, and the songs that river through this movie are by and large songs drawn from collective memory, songs remembered and revived for their haunting individual images yet most often credited to no one in particular. “If it was never new and never gets old then it’s a folk song,” our titular protagonist (Oscar Isaac) flatly declares after singing ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’ to a small but transfixed audience at the Gaslight. From the title on down, ‘Hang Me’ is a song would sound like resignation were it not for the simple fact of its being sung—in this case with spectral grace.
‘Hang Me’ is, in a sense, the movie in miniature: talented but no genius, a bold interpreter but not a songwriter, Llewyn struggles to make a name for himself but is beset by obstacles throughout this tale marked by loneliness, strange twists of fate, acid absurdist wit, and a pitch-perfect sense of time and place. Llewyn possesses genuine artistic integrity, but he does not ingratiate himself. He’s not remarkably handsome or charismatic. Actually he’s kind of an asshole, or in any case tends to say the wrong thing. He also has a knack for impregnating women he probably shouldn’t have slept with to begin with. He carries a deep psychic wound—stemming from the loss of his musical partner—but won’t give others the benefit of discussing it, much less exploit it for the sake of honing a then-marketable lonesome traveller persona. (The dissonance between Llewyn the performer and Llewyn the ordinary ornery fuck-up is one of this story’s most compelling elements.) In short, he makes no effort to let his friends, colleagues or listeners “inside.” He doesn’t “connect” with audiences the way that the seemingly wholesome duo Jim & Judy (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) or the exceedingly earnest Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) do. What Llewyn gains in authenticity he loses in accessibility.
So this is decidedly not a chronicle of musical success; Llewyn is barley successful at scoring a couch to crash on, a ride, or a meal. He can’t even take care of a benefactors’ cat—and let me add that Inside Llewyn Davis features what must be the most impressive cat performance(s) in the history of cinema. Llewyn falls into a gig playing backup on a potentially lucrative novelty tune (featuring vocals by a brilliantly ridiculous Adam Driver) but signs himself out of royalties. At one point Llewyn joins in on an ill-fated road-trip to the Midwest—maybe things will be better in Chicago—accompanied by a Santería-practicing junky jazzman (John Goodman, with excellent haircut) and a taciturn valet named Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund, hilariously revising and reversing his garrulous Dean Moriarty from On The Road). Later he’ll consider abandoning music and returning to the merchant marine, but even giving up art for commerce proves problematic.
Initially inspired by the life of the late folkie Dave Van Ronk, Inside Llewyn Davis follows one of these figures for whom fame and fortune will always remain elusive—which is a whole other kind of mystique: the romance of the under-recognized. Riddled with dead ends and fraught affairs, impromptu travels and roads not taken, unsupportive agents and the world’s narrowest hallways, Llewyn’s shaggy odyssey is closer to the stuff of folk songs than those of other singers famous for singing folk songs. If I haven’t made this clear yet, the movie is beautifully acted, photographed and edited; it’s poetic, funny, sad and fascinating; it’s a mature, surprisingly soulful work from these forever fraternal filmmakers, lifelong collaborators who can surely relate to the idea of not knowing how to go on as an artist without your creative partner by your side.