Caught somewhere between resentment and exhaustion, struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) wanders through a snowy and gray Greenwich Village in 1961 with a guitar slung over his shoulder. While not quite a human zombie, the young man appears lost in thoughts of disappointment and resignation, weighed down by more than just his instrument.
The human centerpiece of Joel and Ethan Coen’s wonderful Inside Llewyn Davis is indeed a man of melancholy. We learn that his sad songs, musically and otherwise, are beginning to overwhelm any hope for a brighter future. Even worse, Llewyn fears he might be disappearing into the present, having failed to illicit interest in his first solo record and live up to his own expectations as an artist.
No one in the film has a “blueprint of the future,” a phrase lobbed at Llewyn by his disapproving sister. But the curly-haired musician can’t even reconcile his traumatic past. Still haunted from his songwriting partner’s suicide, Llewyn never fully confronts the idea that his early success could have been attributed to their collaboration, not his individual talents. Herein lies the foundation of the character’s elaborate self-made prison.
Pluck any one Coen brothers film from their amazing canon and you’ll get a different variation on earthly purgatory, but Inside Llewyn Davis is unique in that it doesn’t suffocate its character’s humanity with condescension. Llewyn’s sadness is not ridiculed; it’s examined as a product of an immensely talented performer perpetually baffled by the relationship between artist and audience.
Each musical performance in the film explores this very idea. During the great opening sequence, Llewyn sings one of his early hits at the dimly lit Gaslight Café in front of a moderate-size crowd. At first, the camera stays tight on the microphone as the character’s raspy voice sings a sobering tale of a man confronting mortality before getting the hangman’s noose.
But like the similarly constructed prologue in the Coens’ great gangster film Miller’s Crossing, the frame eventually opens up, revealing an expanded and deeper cinematic space. People listen intently as billows of smoke fill the air, then kindly applaud upon the song’s completion. Llewyn smiles to himself and says, “You’ve probably heard that one before. If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” Originality is Llewyn’s only currency, but he keeps butting up against the realities of artistic commodification and commerciality. The people want what the people want.
Whether Llewyn ever makes peace with this fact remains ambiguous. Yet, Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t about answers; the Coens are more interested in the questions posed by revealing patterns of a given journey—more specifically, how each character, especially Llewyn, is trying to escape from their current path and jump to a more idealized direction in life.
This is why Jean (Carey Mulligan), a fellow singer whose hatred for Llewyn stems from the possibility that she may be pregnant with his child after a one-night stand, becomes so deeply enraged whenever he’s around. Being reminded of your failures on a daily basis makes life contentious. Llewyn experiences this, as well, settling to the sidelines to watch the world pass by, as if he was under self-imposed exile from feeling any type of joy.
Thankfully, Inside Llewyn Davis—which opens Friday, Dec. 20—juxtaposes its lead character’s dour mood with bursts of pure expression, be it through artistic creation or just a fleeting connection with the world around him. The breezy, strangely non-traditional narrative allows for such wondrous moments to reveal themselves organically.
When Llewyn accidentally lets out a friend’s ginger tomcat and is forced to carry it across town on the subway, the inquisitive feline looks out of the window spellbound by the images it sees. It’s tragic that Llewyn will never be as open to such possibility, but that’s his cross to bear. The world will keep spinning nonetheless.