By Jacob Mertens.
The folk singer sits at the fore of a small crowd in the Gaslight Cafe. The lights hang dim around him, pale concrete at his feet—more a somber tomb than a stage. He sings a strained ballad, voice raw and clear and imperfect but beautiful still. He utters the words of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” and the wistful fatigue of the song means nothing yet because the film has just opened. But the song will be revisited and when it is he will seem barely more than a ghost, a man who has pushed himself to the point of exhaustion, who has given love and lifeblood to music and who can barely muster the courage to love anything else half so much.
Llewyn Davis, played by the relatively unknown Oscar Isaac, is a tragic figure, although he might not seem so at first. He is coarse, filled with aimless contempt, and rude to many around him. He commits reprehensible acts to screen, like abandoning a cat in a car left deserted on the highway, he isolates both friends and family, and above all else he struggles with everything. He has little more than a few dollars to his name and his solo album won’t sell. A short while back, his creative partner threw himself off the George Washington Bridge, and now Llewyn cannot hear his name mentioned without getting defensive. A brilliant creative impulse still burns in him though, consumes him, and he cannot find a means to let it out. It dies on the drab walls of back alley venues, it falls on deaf ears. And so, irascible but a poet nonetheless, Llewyn Davis staggers through the film looking for refuge that he will never find.
The Coen Brothers imbue this tale with deft humor, tempering the haunt of Llewyn’s music while also allowing him to be unlikable at times without isolating the audience. However, if the film amuses it does so at the expense of its protagonist, who finds himself at odds both with his life and his life’s telling. In lesser hands, this perpetual masochistic cycle would play as redundant, but with the Coens at the helm it strikes closer to inspiration. The man runs into a wall over and over, he bleeds himself dry, and he sees those with lesser talent break through due to a warmth of spirit that he cannot rouse outside of a folk song. Even so, he plunges ahead and plays small venues, convinced of his art and little else. The film then shadows Llewyn to the edge of ruin and leaves him in a gutter, listening to the comparable genius of a young Bob Dylan follow his opening act.
Inside Llewyn Davis has the feel of an allegory, but whatever hidden meaning lies beneath this struggle eludes Llewyn. He stands too close to heartbreak to appreciate how much it feeds his music. He can only appreciate small glimpses of success, the affirmation of his instincts as a musician. The film attests to this logic in a long detour roadtrip, in which Llewyn leaves New York for the outside chance of a gig in Chicago. A prolonged sequence forces the audience to linger on a seeming last ditch effort to make a go of music, drags it out even, and when Llewyn smuggles into a club to audition for a man who was meant to receive his solo album—and perhaps never did—the narrative momentum halts outright to allow for a song.
“The Death of Queen Jane” is sung from beginning to end, the editing remains subtle and unobtrusive, all allowing Llewyn to offer his soul in its entirety for a chance at recognition. The club owner, played with marvelous pretension by F. Murray Abraham, elects instead to rip out the man’s heart. Llewyn shrugs off the rejection and returns to New York; the filmic deviation concludes as a waste of time. In the final moments, Inside Llewyn Davis makes yet another bid for a noble ending but cannot manage it. Instead, the film follows its protagonist’s example and relents to fate, listens idly as Dylan croons “Farewell” in his inimitable rasp. In this act of submission, the beauty of Llewyn’s art lies bare: a voice full of heartache and no kind ear to lend itself, a sacrifice gone unnoticed.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.
Note: for those curious, NPR has released a “First Listen” of the Inside Llewyn Davis Soundtrack—due for release on November 11th, 2013.