“Hang me, oh, hang me,” sings Llewyn Davis mournfully in the opening scene of Joel and Ethan Coen’s newest film, Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s an appropriately melancholy choice, slyly setting up the film’s abundant use of gallows humor and the travails a hapless protagonist will face. Inside Llewyn Davis follows a week in the life of its struggling folk musician hero. The Coens expertly invest this seemingly mundane premise with depth, wit, and a brisk pace: not a single minute of screentime is wasted.
Llewyn, played with a sense of tremendous weariness by Oscar Isaac, is the latest in a long line of hapless Coen Brothers protagonists. He’s a folk singer in Greenwich Village, struggling after the death of his partner, and a perpetual (in the fullest sense of the term) loser. He’s no saint, either – he comments derisively on his musical competitors, has a strained relationship with his father, and, early on, we find that he may have impregnated his friend’s wife Jean (an angry, profanity-spouting Carey Mulligan). Isaac must have the screen presence to hold our interest for its running time, and thanks in large part to his world-weary charisma and desperation, Isaac succeeds. His motivations remain oblique, and his backstory is vaguely sketched by the Coens; we never learn the exact circumstances of his partner’s suicide, or the precise nature of his relationship with Jean. This lends the film a certain richness and ambiguity: we know there are reasons for why Llewyn does what he does, but we do not fully understand them. We can only evaluate him based on his actions in the present.
Folk music is more than just a backdrop for the story – it is part of the film’s DNA. For one thing, the film feels like a melancholy folk song – and for another, no less than fourteen songs are part of the soundtrack (produced by Coen collaborator T-Bone Burnett), most of them performed in full onscreen by the actors themselves. These scenes are a joy to watch, playing not as interruptions but as extensions of the characters and story. As Jean sings “Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name,” she is quietly indicting Llewyn’s homeless lifestyle. The folk music is not a gimmick: it is inextricably tied up in the characters’ stories. Additionally, the songs are selected with a view to thematic significance; early in the film, “Fare Thee Well” sets up Llewyn’s struggle with the suicide of his partner. Only one of the songs is original to the film – a hilarious ballad about the space race, titled “Please, Mr. Kennedy” (it was snubbed for a Best Original Song nomination).
The film is a technical wonder, captured gorgeously by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, who also shot the best-looking Harry Potter film (Half-Blood Prince). Delbonnel creates strikingly evocative images (take special note of a scene on a foggy highway), using a drab color palette uncharacteristic of the Coens’ stylized films. The film’s technical virtues all contribute to its utterly engrossing atmosphere and portrait of 1960s Greenwich Village – a portrayal that, in true Coen Brothers form, is concerned less with historical realism and more with capturing the visceral “feel” of the time and place.
The cast of characters is superb as well. During his journey, Llewyn meets a host of idiosyncratic characters, including an hysterically foul-tempered John Goodman (“Folk songs?” he muses – “I thought you said you were a musician.”), his valet (Garrett Hedlund in a surprisingly evocative, nearly wordless performance), and potential manager Bud Grossman, the requisite “man behind the desk” of any Coen Brothers film, played with calm gravitas by the great F. Murray Abraham. This is a film populated by living, breathing characters.
In typical Coen Brothers fashion, the film is thematically dense and crammed with symbolism. The presence of the cat is ripe for interpretation. At one point, a woman says emphatically, “Llewyn is the cat.” Alternatively, with the way it haunts Llewyn, the cat could represent the memory of Llewyn’s dead partner. Additionally, a motif of childbirth runs through the film; in addition to the obvious element of Jean’s pregnancy, the lyrics of “Fare Thee Well” mention an unborn child, and Llewyn’s audition for Grossman is “The Death of Queen Jane,” a ballad about the queen’s ultimately fatal complications during childbirth. This motif makes sense in light of the fact that creative expression is often compared to pregnancy (which makes thematic sense of the title, Inside Llewyn Davis). Throughout the film, Llewyn’s attempts to “give birth” – that is, to express himself through his music – are fraught with complications.
Inside Llewyn Davis is also connected to Homer’s Odyssey (a precedent set by the Coens’ earlier O Brother, Where Art Thou?). A third-act reveal links Llewyn directly to Homer’s “man of many trials,” but the more prominent connection comes in the form of the Gate of Horn – a real location, but also a significant shout-out to a literary image originated by Homer. True dreams come through the gates of horn, while false come through the gates of ivory. Llewyn is effectively denied passage through the gates of horn. When he comes to see Grossman, he is told, in a typical bit of Coenesque wordplay, to play something “from inside Llewyn Davis.” When he does, the results are devastating – Grossman calmly pronounces, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” And with that, Llewyn is thrust back into the world of Greenwich Village.
Ultimately, Inside Llewyn Davis is a study of the archetypal “starving artist.” Llewyn is dedicated, above all, to his art. Upon hearing that Jean wants to have kids and move to the suburbs, Llewyn chides, “If that’s what music is to you, then it’s a little careerist. And it’s a little square. And it’s a little sad.” Another telling exchange takes place between Llewyn and his sister Joy; when she suggests that he consider quitting, he blurts, “Quit? Just exist?” Llewyn’s life is bound up in his music, and it is only when he plays that he finds a brief respite from his hard life. Paradoxically, it is also his devotion to his music that keeps him from finding conventional happiness, dooming him to a life of bumming from couch to couch. At multiple points, the film suggests that Llewyn chooses this life. “That’s why all the same shit is going to keep happening to you,” Jean rants. “Because you want it to – and also because you’re an asshole!” She’s shown to be right, in many ways: Llewyn’s suffering is informed precisely by his choices. He chooses to heckle performers at the Gaslight Café, and as a result, he is beaten up in the alleyway. He chooses to pay for Jean’s abortion. He chooses to refuse royalties because he needs fast cash. And above all, he chooses to keep pursuing the music, even when all hope of success seems to be dwindling.
By the time the third act rolls along, it seems that Llewyn is doomed in a world of static misery – and yet, he changes. He moves on and he accepts. Unlike his most immediate predecessor, A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik, Llewyn is not tormented by a universe beyond his control that is out to get him: he chooses to endure and perpetuate his lifestyle. Life beats him up, and he responds with a sardonic “Au revoir” – literally, “Till we meet again.” Llewyn’s hell is formed by his choices, but we have seen that Llewyn does not always choose poorly, and with this comes a ray of hope: Llewyn can choose to change. The world of Inside Llewyn Davis is not, perhaps, a hell, but a purgatory.