Inside Llewyn Davis: A Work of Art, and What Else?

There are many ways I could describe Inside Llewyn Davis: a portrait, a character study, a reimagining of the 1961 Greenwich Village folk music scene. But after watching the film and re-listening to its soundtrack numerous times, and finding much to admire in its craftsmanship and musical talent, I don’t know if all that I heard and saw constitutes a story. At the same time, I don’t really think that’s a problem.

Written and directed by cinematic siblings Joel and Ethan Coen, the film follows a week in the life of a folk singer named Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), who is broke, homeless, and can’t catch a break with his stalling career. Llewyn’s character is loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, a 1960’s folk musician who assisted and promoted many of his musical peers but never quite made it big himself. Many of the songs performed by Isaac and the supporting cast – which includes Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan – are real tracks from Van Ronk’s repertoire.

Pretty much all the backstory you need to know is that after losing his former singing partner, Llewyn’s been trying to launch a solo career. Unfortunately, the solo album he recently released was a flop, and he is now dependent for income on repeated gigs at a crappy dive bar called The Gaslight. The rest of the film is chock full of the Coen brothers’ trademark dark humor, witty dialogue, and eccentric supporting characters. There is also a lot to look at, with Bruno Delbonnel’s beautiful desaturated cinematography giving every scene the feel of being bathed in wintry sunlight. The poignant visual quality of the movie makes it easy to forget how much discipline must have gone into making it.

Other than that, there’s not much more to the movie’s plot. This is not to say that nothing happens, because a lot does. But the film has a meandering quality to it that mimics Llewyn’s aimless wandering.

There is also something puzzling about the temporal sequence of Inside Llewyn Davis, which starts and finishes with a scene of Llewyn playing the exact same rendition of a song called “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at The Gaslight, but has the addition of a scene with a key extra character in the second version. This not-quite circular structure leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Is the whole movie a flashback from the first scene? Is the first scene a flash-forward to the rest of the movie? Is either version “real” at all, or are they just symbolic bookends for Llewyn’s trapped existence – a sign that he is destined to relive the same horrible week for the rest of his life, even after we leave the theater?

Perhaps to resolve these issues, the Coen brothers added a device of narrative continuity: the ginger cat. The cat, which we later find out is named Ulysses, allows Llewyn to have something to lose and find over the course of the movie. It also serves the function of being very adorable – an instant cue for audience coos.

Without Ulysses, though, it can be hard to feel any sort of attachment to Llewyn, who is a leading character without many likable qualities. Llewyn is an artist with a capital A, and doesn’t let anyone forget it. He treats his friends and family inconsiderately and indifferently; the only thing he really seems to feel genuinely bad about in the whole movie is losing his friend’s cat.

Despite Llewyn’s disagreeableness, he’s also unexpectedly sympathetic. At the end of the day, Llewyn’s problem isn’t that he’s not trying. It’s more the bitter truth that he is the victim of poor luck and bad timing. In fact, Llewyn’s music seems a little ahead of his time. While everyone else in the movie is playing cheerful radio-friendly ditties, Llewyn’s rougher style has more in common with Bob Dylan. Unfortunately for Llewyn, 1961 Greenwich Village is just a year or two away from Dylan-esque artists breaking onto the musical scene.

Llewyn’s music is where it all came together for me. Whenever he picked up his guitar, it was possible for me to forget Llewyn’s unpleasantness as a person and become transfixed by his singing – singing that is guaranteed to put even the most Positive of Polly’s in a melancholy mood. The absorbing power of Llewyn’s playing is testament to Isaac’s skill as a musician, as well as to the creative talents of music supervisor T Bone Burnett and guest vocalist Marcus Mumford.

It is also a result of the Coen brothers’ careful scene staging and character construction. Whenever an audience looked more politely interested than totally mesmerized by Llewyn’s singing, or when a club manager told him flatly, “I don’t see any money in this,” I felt like my dreams were being crushed along with Llewyn’s. I wanted them to see that there was something inside Llewyn Davis. I wanted them to give him a chance.

Part of the success of the movie is realizing that no one ever will.

Grade: A

Jessica Welsh is a senior in the English department.