The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis begins and ends with the same sequence, as our titular singer-songwriter gives a heartfelt rendition of Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song) at the soon-to-be iconic Gaslight Cafe in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Afterwards, he’s enticed out back to meet an “old friend”, who assaults him and leaves him in a bloody pile.
Dink’s Song was a famous folk ballad – performed by Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk (whom the film is loosely based upon), and many others – and in 1961, the year during which the film is set, the folk music revolution was just about to take off. At the very center of that revolution was Greenwich Village and The Gaslight, the famous cafe that hosted Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan, among others.
But in the world of folk music, for every Dylan (was there more than one?) there were dozens of Sixto Rodriguezes (the subject of Searching for Sugar Man, who received more minor and belated acclaim), and for every Sixto Rodriguez there were thousands of Llewyn Davises, starving artists who toiled in obscurity.
After the initial beating, we sympathize with Llewyn; soon, we come to understand in painstaking detail how he has found himself in this situation. Ever since Blood Simple, there’s been a cold, detached irony that has pervaded the Coen Brothers’ best films, and Inside Llewyn Davis might be the finest example yet: placing the action in precise historical context, the audience knows what Davis doesn’t, and there’s almost a dark satisfaction in watching his plight.
Llewyn (wonderfully played by Oscar Isaac) isn’t in the best of situations – he’s not far from rock bottom during the course of the film – but he has no one to blame but himself. Refusing to compromise his ideals, and blindly making poor decisions, Davis finds himself homeless and jobless during a harsh NYC winter in 1961.
At the outset of the film, he wakes up on the couch of his friends, an affluent older couple (Ethan Phillips & Robin Bartlett). When leaving the apartment, their cat escapes with him; unable to get back inside, or hand over the pet to the doorman, Llewyn carries it across the city as he searches for the next place he can spend the night.
That cat – and (especially) another that appears later in the film – is the perfect companion for Davis, a lost soul forced to fend for himself in a harsh reality that he fails to fully comprehend. Their scenes together are the perfect metaphor for the movie, which details in almost Kafkaesque fashion everything that goes wrong, and culminates in a heartbreaking – but precisely realized – scene in which the duo part ways.
Llewyn isn’t exactly a nice guy; he mistreats and takes advantage of his friends, he snidely dismisses artists he feels are beneath him or have sold out, and he even viciously heckles a fellow performer at the Gaslight, an act for which he receives deserved comeuppance. Later on, we find out that he has impregnated his friend Jean (Carey Mulligan), the wife of his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake), themselves a husband-wife folk act.
In one of the film’s most memorable sequences, Llewyn performs a rendition of the pop novelty song Please Mr. Kennedy with Timberlake’s Jim and Adam Driver’s Al Cody. Davis just needs the cash, and dismisses the song outright (Timberlake’s reaction when sarcastically asked “who wrote this?” is priceless), while blindly signing over any future royalties in order to get a quick payout. It’s a blissfully entertaining pop bubblegum song – I’ve watched the scene and listened to the tune countless times since watching the film – but when placed in context of the rest of the film, it’s the kind of darkly ironic comment that the Coens do so well.
In lieu of a traditional structure, familiar faces fill the screen in a series of vignettes that amount to the film’s devastating effect; John Goodman and Garret Hedlund (as a junkie musician and a beat poet Davis hitches a ride to Chicago with) and F. Murray Abraham (as a Chicago club owner) are unforgettable during the film’s climactic ride.
Beautifully shot by Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie) with an outstanding soundtrack produced by T-Bone Burnett and featuring songs from Isaac, Timberlake, Marcus Mumford – and, in the haunting final sequence, an unreleased early track from Bob Dylan – Inside Llewyn Davis ranks among the Coen Brothers’ greatest films.
While not for everyone – it may be the filmmakers’ bleakest yet, its closest spiritual match being A Serious Man – this movie about an artist struggling not only to survive, but struggling to maintain the passion for his craft, is one that really comes from the heart.