In “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen brothers let their natural pessimism run rampant against the backdrop of the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early 1960s. The movie is set just before a novice Bob Dylan took that world by storm, and helped propel the niche genre to widespread public acclaim, but Mr. Dylan’s surrealistic lyricism, allegorical style, and dark humor inform this wonderfully strange and idiosyncratic movie.
The character of Llewyn Davis is loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, a onetime merchant marine who was a leading light among New York folkies before Mr. Dylan arrived on the scene. Though the film itself celebrates folk music and features characters based on well-known musicians like Tom Paxton and Jack Elliott, it’s really a nuanced and at times disturbing look at how talent and ambition collide with failure and loss. The movie’s mobius-like structure, somewhat baffling at first blush, suggests that Llewyn will forever take it on the chin in this crash.
Llewyn (Oscar Issac) is foundering as a musician. His best gigs involve playing for tips at the now-legendary Gaslight Cafe, and if he’s lucky, squeezing a few bucks out of a recording session. He can’t read a chart, though he plays decently enough. But he’s grieving from the death of his musical partner Mike, and trying to establish himself as a solo artist. Not that Llewyn was that established as half of a duo, as he notes in an especially funny scene in which he’s trying to get some royalties from his tiny record label.
At every turn, and in response to every indignity, Llewyn insists that playing folk music is his job, and not something he does as a hobby, or to entertain party guests. He lacks passion and sincerity, yet his singing voice is suffused with both qualities. For all that, Llewyn’s gifts are not exactly validated by the marketplace. He’s homeless, forever on the lookout for a sofa to crash on. When he gets a chance to audition for impresario Bud Grossman (a very lightly fictionalized take on Mr. Dylan’s early manager Albert Grossman, played by the great F. Murray Abraham), he is told dryly, “I don’t see a lot of money here.”
The period setting and cinematography make “Inside Llewyn Davis” the Coens’ most visually stunning film. The streets of Greenwich Village appear as they do on the iconic cover of Mr. Dylan’s “Freewheelin’” and the interiors of cramped tenement apartments, smoky cafes and recording studios are rendered in loving detail.
One of the key mysteries of the movie is whether Llewyn is a poor schmendrick who’s not quite talented enough to crack the big time, or if he is a toxic villain who brings ruin wherever he goes — “King Midas’s idiot brother,” as his sometime lover Jean (Carey Mulligan) says.
The Coen brothers put a lot of effort into not showing their hand on this. In one of the early scenes, Llewyn has to take custody of an orange tabby cat he mistakenly lets slip from an apartment where he spent the night, and goes to great lengths trying to track it down when it escapes him. On the other hand, he has other responsibilities (best not revealed here) that he bucks entirely to preserve what he imagines to be his autonomy. (The Coens have other ideas on this score, it would appear.)
“Inside Llewyn Davis” isn’t likely to be one of the Coens’ more popular films. It lacks the brazen stoner appeal of “The Big Lebowski” or the narrative drive of “No Country For Old Men,” or the meta-fictional treats of some of their genre films, which are as much about other movies as about the stories contained therein. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is probably the duo’s most fully realized cinematic achievement to date, and Llewyn himself is the most fully human character they have yet contrived.
TITLE: “Inside Llewyn Davis”
CREDITS: Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
RATING: R language, tobacco, and sexual situations
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS