For a film in which not much happens in the way of events, and its created 1961 Greenwich folk scene inhabited by a slew of colorful characters of which almost none are remotely likable, Inside Llewyn Davis explores the always-relevant balancing act that exists between art and artist, and also between that art and an audience, in a way that feels exceedingly honest even if familiar, and by virtue of that, invaluable.
As the cyclical nature of the film’s narrative might suggest, Llewyn is trapped in his present reality— repeatedly tempted by forces to give up or compromise his chosen life and job really, and rarely seeing monetary gain or general reward from it aside from some semblance of artistic integrity. Scarily reminiscent of the actual present where the generational flaw that blankets my age bracket is a tired sense of entitlement, the 1961 New York that Llewyn exists in is speckled by success-hungry peers and carefully molded personas pretending to apart of “the hustle.” And though the self-destructive Llewyn is far from a role-model citizen, the ease with which I personally identify with him is probably rooted in his conscious decision to be the exact opposite of that.
Vastly different from the kind of artist who starves themself in order to turn out a piece on struggle, or writer who does LSD for the sake of their next article, Llewyn isn’t a romantic. He’s not living the life of a vagrant to generate forced inspiration, but rather an immensely talented individual grappling with not having what has become the societal definition of success despite this talent, his plight made even more troubling as its integrity is not enough to keep even a roof over his head— or as he puts it, buy him a winter coat.
Using the music industry as a mechanism to depict such capitalist-centric relationships allows the inclusion of some hilarious, even if archetypical, characters. Inside Llewyn Davis is a Coen comedy after all, and thusly introduces an array of personalities, from the commercially inclined pop musician Jim aptly played by a tawdry Justin Timberlake, venue owners and talent buyers at the historical Gaslight Cafe, to a great segment with a Jazz enthusiast/snob played by Mr. John Goodman.
A subtle romance exists between Llewyn and Carey Mulligan’s character Jean, who, as it turns out, commodifies herself in exchange for a mild chance at fame. She can justify her frustrations with Llewyn— in her mind they want the same things— and in doing so unabashedly spews some of the best lines, but Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis is the talent here. While the only movie I’ve ever seen him in prior to this is Drive, Isaac brought something to that role that pulled focus away from a strikingly shot Los Angeles terrain and an extremely popular co-star, and did so in a comparatively short amount of screen time.
Strumming out folk songs more convincingly and genuinely than many real-life musicians and inspiring sympathy for a character that neither deserves or asks for it, here Isaac plays his part like the only sane man around (he’s totally the only sane man around) and his sincerity is clearly reflected in the resulting performance as he carries this movie, scene by scene, bewildered and alone.
What with the musical aspect and the bluey-green tinted landscape of Llewyn’s melancholic and humorous world, it makes sense that many would compare this to the Coens’ sepia-toned O Brother, Where Art Thou? (there’s the color correction, the allusions to Homer’s Odyssey, T Bone Burnett’s folk-soaked music built into the narrative), but more fitting are the comparisons of Inside Llewyn Davis to the similarly structured A Serious Man, the protagonist of which is trapped in a universe of hopeless despair, anxiety and nihilism, and seems to be the only one aware of this reality.
"If it’s never new and never gets old, then it’s a folk song." Llewyn repeats (something along the lines of) this twice, bookending the entire narrative with this refrain. And in the end, Llewyn’s story is not new— not for the Coens and not in general.
Llewyn ultimately fails in his attempt at success, but thereby remains the maker of his own fate. He’s not forced to take on another partner, wear a cable knit sweater, or sing silly songs about the space race, but he also remains homeless, jobless and penniless by the narrative’s end. Somehow this comes across as a kind of demented hope, even if that hope isn’t enough to upend what it means to be successful.
The social commentary is there, but the Coens’ decision to continually make films exploring the inner-workings and integrity of the human mind will always be more artful than works with clear agendas. Framing that creation in 1961 and briefly depicting future activist Bob Dylan singing on a small stage in one of the penultimate scenes really drives this home. Inside Llewyn Davis now just merely exists in society, much like the characters Llewyn encounters merely “exist” (as he so eloquently puts it) within his world, prompting audiences with important questions regarding art and love and success and politics, questions that seem to be asked less and less in mainstream art, and doing so affectingly and without blatant intent for influence.
What else is life if not this experience.
"It just fell over?"
"Yes," she says.
"And you just let it. Fall over?"
"Didn’t it occur to you that maybe you could catch it? Stop it?"
"The glass isn’t broken, the wine was finished, why are you angry with me?" she asks, resetting the glass upright.
"Who’s angry? Not me. I’m not angry."
"They’re on their way here. Don’t get worked up, you’ll spoil things."
"Who is? I’m not angry. I just can’t understand why on earth we can’t go one day without you acting like a floozy."
"I think you mean a ditz."
"Or a klutz. Whatever I mean— you know."
"I know," she says, smoothing a wrinkle on her apron.
He cups her face in his hands and lifts her head, his thumbs rubbing her cheeks softly, “Let me take a look at you.”
In another universe she watches it happen, motionless as the glass tips, the red liquid slowly gliding along the smooth curve of its bowl. It seems almost a ballet, for a moment it balancing, standing on the edge of its circular foot. There the glass is not empty, and her hands do not stir as its contents bleed onto the white table linen.
The moisture seeps beneath her fingertips, her palms. She watches it move slowly as if controlled, expanding outward from the glass still lying on its side, inching toward the edge of the table, staring as the wine travels over the edge and collects in a pocket of cloth that hangs from the corner. At first a steady stream, the drip slows to a soft tick— as if keeping in time with a clock.
A key sounds in the lock behind her, and she closes her eyes as someone enters the room. She can feel their look, the dry lubrication of their intentions— can hear them emptying their pockets, setting down their keys, their briefcase— can feel their footsteps drawing near— can hear them say, “I’ll get the towels.”
"Oh, don’t bother," she says, "they’re here."