With their new film Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers show a profound understanding of the existential quandary of musicians. As a longtime chronicler of the local Miami music scene, I have met many talented musicians who have fallen on one side of the fine line of recognition versus the other. In between there are many levels of accomplishments that defy such black and white notions as success versus failure. Whoever thinks becoming a recognizable musician defines success will miss out on the divine subtlety of Inside Llewyn Davis.
One could think of musicians as inter-dimensional travelers. They can move between two distinct worlds: the world of music and the conventional world non-musicians known. With their latest film, the Coens take the viewer Inside Llewyn Davis with only one special effect: the music. Actor/musician and Miami native Oscar Isaac does a stunning job of playing the titular character, a folk singer on the famed Greenwich Village circuit of the early 1960s whose blossoming talent seems doomed to ruin at every turn.
The film opens with a close up view of the bearded Llewyn, softly singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” a traditional folk song that has never been attributed to a writer. The camera closes real tight, as he strums an acoustic guitar and sings the entire, dreary song to a darkened, crowded, yet silent cafe. Something almost religious is happening as Llewyn sings and strums. The lyrics speak of a life rich in experience but destined to be cut short by an executioner.
They put the rope around my neck, they hung me very high.
The very last words I heard them say, “It won’t be long ’til you die, poor boy.”
I’ve been all around this world.
The Coens have admitted to modeling Davis’ character on Dave Van Ronk, an obscure folk artist essential to the Greenwich Village folk scene (just look at this album cover). Van Ronk was known for a purist’s interest in the oral history of folk songs such as “Hang Me.” It’s an example of music that has so overshadowed its composer, no definitive record of its songwriter exists, an ironic touch that’s no accident in the detailed world of the Coens.
The Coen brothers’ interest in a musician who sings such a song foretells what sort of man, outside the music, Llewyn is destined to become. What follows is a journey both pathetic and sublime. It’s sublime in those moments the filmmakers allow for the songs, affectionately produced by T-Bone Burnett, to unfold, always in their entirety, as Llewyn dives into the realm of music and seems to exist in another almost divine world that has a different language and sense of time. Then there are the moments outside the music that reveals a rather sad and sometimes angry life of the homeless folk singer, who must spend much of his energy in search of a friendly couch to sleep on during the snowy winter of the Northeast while also peddling his musical talents.
Llewyn has an incompetent manager who seems far from invested in Llewyn’s music and an irascible sister (Jeanine Serralles) annoyed with his pursuit of art instead of a more practical career. Then there’s Jean (Carey Mulligan), one half of the married sunny singing duo Jim & Jean. She has two-timed Jim (Justin Timberlake) with Llewyn, and she’s angry with Llewyn for maybe getting her pregnant. She flings “fucking asshole” at him like it’s his first name, and Llewyn takes it with hangdog pathos.
Meanwhile, Llewyn tries to eke out a living from his art, which includes a sincere, almost virtuous repertoire of folk songs, including one song that dates back to the 18th century (“Fare Thee Well”). He’s a Luddite musician who hates the idea of selling out yet aspires for some level of success. He’s so haunted by his desire to make an honest, authentic mark, even vandalism in a toilet stall has resonance. “What are you doing?” the universe seems to ask him, adding another heavy ounce of pressure to the matter.
It’s not accidental that Llewyn’s name sounds like Lou and Davis, something belligerent, misanthropic jazz musician and heroin addict Roland Turner (John Goodman doing a harrowing impression of Doc Pomus) so casually notes. Llewyn is a man missing his other half, as is revealed literally early in the film, when he looks at a corny record cover featuring him and another musician, who has met a rather sad, untimely demise. Beyond a literal sense of Llewyn existing as one half of a duo, he is also figuratively half a man when not performing, incomplete without the music. He’s the ideal noble warrior for the purest reason of artistic expression.
Between naps in the backseat of a car, Roland pokes at Llewyn, shaving down his esteem with insults that Llewyn shakes off with annoyed, quiet resentment. He puts up with the troll of a man, as he is providing the ride to Chicago where he hopes to audition for an important manager named Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). Once again, the Coens offer a shadow of greatness as this manager shares a name and an implied history of the impresario who became Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. When Llewyn makes an opportunity to audition for Grossman, it’s a reference to how close he has come to achieving the success he so yearns for. So often the line between success and failure depends on being at the right place at the right time, and no other film captures this with so much melancholy and depth.
Besides a subtle and distinctive sense of humor and pathos to the narrative, the Coens again prove they know how to create an absorbing cinematic atmosphere. Art director Deborah Jensen and costume designer Mary Zophres have worked together to achieve this sepia-toned world of a lost time (and lost opportunity) that is both vintage chic and ghostly somber. Then there’s the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. The image often looks soft and the gray area in which this man exists never blended so well between the black and white. It’s the perfect complement to the muted vision of a world that revolutionized popular music at the time. It befits the unlucky Llewyn, who merely seems a passenger on this ride to near glory. After all, we all know there’s someone else besides him waiting in the shadows to transcend this scene.
Inside Llewyn Davis runs 105 min. and is rated R (for cussing and sexual references). The only art house that has it in South Florida is the Coral Gables Art Cinema, where it opens this Friday, Dec. 20. As for the multiplexes in South Florida showing the film, they include:
AMC Sunset Place
Regal South Beach
Cinemark Boynton Beach
Paragon Jupiter 18
But the best seat to see to see the film in South Florida, as ever, is the Coral Gables Art Cinema. CBS Films invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of awards consideration. Those living in other parts of the U.S. can insert their zip code here for nearby theaters hosting this film.
(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)