It’s a particularly gray New York winter in 1961, and Llewyn Davis, the talented but struggling folk singer at the center of the Coen Brothers’ bittersweet odyssey Inside Llewyn Davis, has endured more than his share of hardships and is approaching a crossroads. Carrying on as a solo act in the aftermath of his partner’s suicidal leap (off the George Washington Bridge), Llewyn’s paying gigs have been dwindling, as is his own manager’s interest in Llewyn’s career; he’s also down to his last few dollars (dimes?) and the list of friends who will offer him a spare couch is pretty much exhausted (his future stayovers with some uptown non-folk friends being jeopardized when he loses their cat).
If I’ve made it seem like Llewyn is a victim of circumstances—well, that’s only partly the case. The folk scene that is Llewyn’s bread and butter is a’changing, soon to be taken over by Bob Dylan, as well as acts that have more overt commercial appeal than Llewyn’s. Yet in many ways Llewyn is the architect of his own fate, with a series of unfortunate choices that make one think of the old expression “if he didn’t have bad luck, he’d have no luck at all.” After securing a studio gig on what Llewyn perceives to be mindless music, he gives up future royalties in order to get a quick paycheck, mainly to cover the cost of long-suffering friend’s abortion (whose suffering is mainly due to Llewyn and the fact that she does not want to keep his child). A troubled encounter with his sister leads him to get rid of some long-neglected belongings, which also leads to some unfortunate repercussions. A trip to Chicago (with a drug-addled, opinionated John Goodman) results in an audition with club impresario F. Murray Abraham, who sees some value, only not in the way Llewyn envisioned.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a haunting, beautifully made film that succeeds in engaging the viewer on many levels, from the nicely crafted ensemble work (Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake among others) to the Coen Brothers’ perceptive and incisive script and their masterful evocation of the Greenwich Village folk scene amidst a terminally bleak winter—and finally, Isaac’s performance in the lead role. In Isaac’s hands, Llewyn is undeniably talented and committed to his music, but as another character states, he has difficulty connecting with people. This inability not only hinders him on the musical front, but on the personal front as well. Proud, caustic, obstinate, and lacking many social graces, Llewyn ruins a friend’s dinner party when he needlessly subjects the hostess to a painful outburst laced with vitriol; in the middle of a recording session, he mocks the song to his friend (Timberlake)—who turns out to have written it; he rewards a nightclub owner’s faith in him by getting drunk and insulting another act. Yet Isaac’s Llewyn never completely loses our sympathy, or his friends’ for that matter. In spite of his crass behavior, Isaac enables us to see Llewyn’s psychic scars and fleeting moments of conscience (especially in relation to that darned cat, whose name he later finds is Ulysses). After all of Llewyn’s restless, sleep-deprived journeys in the movie (which only take a few days but seem much longer—to him, not us), Llewyn may end up roughly where he started, but Isaac and the Coen Brothers make it worth the trip.