Oscar Isaac stars in Ethan and Joel Cohen's Inside Llewyn Davis. Photo: Courtesy CBS films

Inside Llewyn Davis
directed by Ethan and Joel Coen
CBS Films

The Coen brothers’ latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, took the Jury Prize at Cannes and garnered favorable reviews from mainstream critics. It seemed to be in the hunt for major awards. But audiences did not like it as much as the critics did. As its box office earnings stalled, so did its Oscar prospects.

Even though the Coen brothers are world-class auteurs, this is not an easy film to enjoy. The music, as integral to the film as it was in the successful O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), doesn’t help. For Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens—along with T. Bone Burnett, who produced the music for O Brother—screened at least a hundred actors before they found Oscar Isaac, a Julliard-trained actor-musician who could sing folk songs and play the guitar without any dubbing. But where O Brother made millions with its jubilant soundtrack, Llewyn Davis’s music, also produced by Burnett, has been a failure. To be fair, the movie soundtrack market has collapsed with Web downloading, but the folk songs Llewyn Davis sings are dreary. You won’t leave the theater humming “Hang Me Oh Hang Me.” Isaac may be a good musician, but he has little charisma. And Llewyn Davis is an off-putting antihero.

Indeed, Llewyn Davis is a brilliantly dreary film—a portrait of the young artist in the throes of failure. It lacks the black humor audiences have come to expect from the Coen brothers. A strutting marmalade cat with his long tail aloft and his hindquarters proudly on display provides the only levity. Fans might prefer the brothers’ usual droll wit and brilliance to the subtlety and ambiguity of Llewyn Davis. But if you see it a second time and read the published screenplay, you might begin to think of this film as their most daring venture.

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Llewyn Davis has been advertised as slice-of-life realism, a week in the life of a folk musician living from hand to mouth, having no coat for the New York winter, sleeping on other people’s couches, ready to give it all up and rejoin the merchant marine like his father before him. But much of what we see is far from realism. When Llewyn performs in a coffeehouse, the audience is oddly silent for an early ’60s folk crowd. His musician friends’ apartments are OCD neat. The marmalade cat’s eyes glint surreally, taking in each subway sign as Llewyn brings him from an Upper West Side apartment to Greenwich Village. Later the cat will make a miraculous journey back home.

The cat, named Ulysses, is one allusion to Homer’s Odyssey; Llewyn’s trip to Chicago, where he auditions unsuccessfully at a club called the Gate of Horn, is another. The Odyssey was also a subtext of O Brother. The narrative is episodic, and the timeline mysteriously cycles back on itself like a Möbius strip. The last scene repeats the first with barely noticeable differences.

As a result, some cineastes claim the whole film is a flashback from that first scene, which begins with a close-up of Llewyn performing “Hang Me Oh Hang Me” at the Gaslight Club in Greenwich Village, 1961. The shot is so tight and Llewyn so self-absorbed that we imagine he is alone. Then the camera’s view widens, and we see the audience sitting at tables in rapt silence. As Llewyn finishes, he explains, “You’ve probably heard that one before, but what the hell. If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” He leaves the spotlight and joins the owner, Pappi Corsicato (Max Casella), at the bar. As they talk, the next performer, backlit and not clearly visible, is getting settled. We never see or hear him because the owner tells Llewyn someone is waiting to talk to him in the alley. The camera follows Llewyn outside where a man assaults him. Llewyn attempts no defense as he is knocked to the ground and brutally kicked. The Coens have said the scene is the cinematic image that inspired the film.

A brilliantly dreary film, Llewyn Davis is a portrait of the artist in the throes of failure. 

In the final scene, Llewyn gives an encore after “Hang Me Oh Hang Me.” It is the “farewell” song he had recorded with Mike Timlin, with whom he once had a musical duet. But Mike committed suicide, and Llewyn has since been trying to make it as a solo act. The song is a sign that Llewyn is either working through his grief or giving up on his career. It was, to my uneducated ear, Isaac’s only virtuoso moment. Llewyn leaves the spotlight for the next performer who again is backlit, barely visible. The screenplay describes him as “a young man with a dutch-boy cap and a guitar and harmonica,” enough for aficionados to recognize Bob Dylan, but Dylan doesn’t appear in the film. We barely notice him as the camera again follows Llewyn out into the alley, and this time we understand why he is assaulted. Llewyn had heckled the only “authentic” folk singer to perform at the Gaslight, a southern lady who accompanied herself on autoharp. Her husband takes revenge before they leave the “cesspool” of New York. Llewyn drags himself out of the alley to watch the man hail a cab and depart. The Coens give him the last two words: “au revoir.”

Perhaps this reprisal suggests the whole film is a flashback, but that interpretation does not explain the film’s episodic quality or its departures from realism. There is another possibility: the film is constructed like a folk song. The opening and closing scenes are like the first and last lines of “Hang Me Oh Hang Me,” the reprisal taking on added meaning because of the intervening choruses. Just so, the violent scenes that begin and end Llewyn Davis are like bookends for the misery in between. They convey the futility of the artist’s struggle on one level and the Coens’ penchant for irony on another. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel offers a similar reading of the film. Llewyn Davis is his first film with the Coens, and his efforts earned him an Oscar nomination. His wintry noirish filmscape mirrors the melancholy quality of the music. Delbonnel thinks you need to see all the Coen brothers films twice to begin to understand the many levels at which they work. He came to the conclusion that the words of Llewyn’s folk songs, like arias in an opera, were telling the story.

Delbonnel may be right, given the changes the Coen brothers made from their original source. They relied on The Mayor of MacDougal Street—the memoir of an early folk figure, Dave Van Ronk—for which they purchased movie rights. But folk historians, and the Coens, agree that Llewyn Davis is not Dave Van Ronk, in either appearance or personality. Llewyn is a self-centered loser with a beard. Van Ronk, a huge Swede from Brooklyn, was a dominating presence, a winner who befriended struggling folk singers. They slept on his couch. He was the father figure of a group of folk singers he called the neoethnics. They might have been more appropriately called the pseudoethnics. Many of them came from middle-class Jewish families, changed their names, and sang like hillbillies from Appalachia. They worked for tips in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village and thought of themselves as serious artists. The apotheosis of this pseudoethnicity was Robert Allen Zimmerman, the young man who made himself into Bob Dylan. Unlike Llewyn, Dylan discovered that folk songs could be “new” and would achieve a creative authenticity.

Leave it to the cultish Coen brothers to fasten on that time in Greenwich Village just before Dylan changed the world of folk music. Their Llewyn is an artist without a vision. And the Coen brothers never really get inside Llewyn Davis, just like they never got inside the serious man of their 2009 film by that name. These characters are descended more from Kafka than from Freud. They are victims of a cruel world, not human beings struggling with their passions. The Coens draw this picture from the outside. We watch Llewyn on his descent into despair. In his long car ride to Chicago, he engages in a bitter exchange with a jazz musician and heroin addict (John Goodman). They trade threats and contempt. Goodman’s compelling presence stands in stark contrast to Isaac’s blankness. When Llewyn auditions for the folk music impresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) on an empty stage at the Gate of Horn, Grossman’s judgment is that “there is no money in it.” Llewyn visits a nursing home to sing for his senile father, whose only response is to defecate. Llewyn is alone in the world, convinced that anything but art is selling out. His conviction might be noble if it were accompanied by vision, but this unaccommodated man does not even engage our sympathy.

Narcissism may be the occupational hazard of performing artists. Llewyn is certainly susceptible to it. He is ill mannered to the point of boorishness, self-centered to the point of self-defeat: he would drive away his audience if he had one. And, like many narcissists, Llewyn defends his fragile self-esteem by armoring himself with contempt for the rest of the world. He is one step from homelessness, unloved and himself incapable of love. At a critical moment in the film, he abandons the cat, the only creature to which he was attached. This is a film about failure—not just as an artist but as a human being.

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Burnett, a musician and producer who has worked with all the greats, including Dylan, would not agree. In comments at the back of the published screenplay, he suggests the film is symbolic of the current music scene in which struggling artists have been betrayed by the Internet and, despite talent, can find no support for their careers.

Perhaps he is right. But when I went back and saw the film a second time, I thought not about contemporary musicians but about those Northern Renaissance etchings by Albrecht Dürer that brilliantly but cruelly portray the misery of the human condition. The Coens’ craftsmanship is masterful even when they take risks and fail to entertain.