This week, I finally got around to watching the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The film depicts a week in the life of titular character Llewyn Davis, a hard up singer-songwriter in New York’s 1960s folk music scene. Davis is struggling: His musical partner, Mike (voiced by Marcus Mumford), recently committed suicide; he has had little success with his solo album “Inside Llewyn Davis;” and he keeps off the streets only by couch-hopping at the homes of friends and acquaintances.
“Inside Llewyn Davis,” which is loosely based on Dave Van Ronk’s autobiography, has had critics raving since its screening at Cannes Film Festival last year, where it received the Grand Prix. Many lauded it as the best Coen Brothers’ film yet, perhaps even the best movie of the year. However, the wider response to the film has been mixed, with some calling it out for its unlikable hero and absence of a coherent plot. Nonetheless, the appeal of a film focusing on folk music and its renaissance was too great for me to resist, and so this past Saturday night I dragged a friend along with me to Bow Tie Cinemas to watch it.
I walked out of the theater with an overwhelming sense of frustration. Having purchased the soundtrack the week of its release, I had fallen in love with each and every one of the songs. From the shiver-inducing duet “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” featuring Marcus Mumford to Oscar Isaac’s melancholy rendition of “The Death Of Queen Jane,” each song beautifully evokes the soulful origins of the Brooklyn folk scene. Yet I felt let down. It wasn’t just Davis’ prickly nature that put me off; his inaction and easy acceptance of defeat made me furious. No! Go do it! Agh! I wanted to shout at the screen.
It took me a while to comprehend my frustration with “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Beyond being bothered by Davis’ bad choices or the fact that he was repeatedly thwarted in his efforts, I saw aspects of Davis’ inertia in myself. That split-second moment when you have to decide whether to make the harder, greater choice that might change your life, or not to. Because that’s what it is — a choice. Of course, there are obstacles and limitations that can get in the way, and Davis’ bohemian poverty is no exception to this. But over and over again we see him choose not to act: the chance to follow the sign to Akron; the occasion to make things right with Jean; even the opportunity to save the stray marmalade cat — all lost.
And we do it, too.
With this new insight, it dawned on me: “Inside Llewyn Davis” is pure brilliance. The film itself is composed like a folk song: We are presented with an incident, completely out of context and with no such explanation to help us — here, a violent encounter with a shadowy figure in a dark alley. We then embark on a journey with the singer, a tale of woe and mishaps and wrong turns, seemingly unrelated to this first-told scene. Though we do not always agree with what our singer-storyteller chooses to do — in fact, at times we may downright dislike him — we share his emotions down to our very cores: His setback is our disappointment; his pain is our anguish. It is only at the end that the first incident is explained, and we finally understand the path to where we are now.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a triumph. It is not a film with clutch-the-edge-of-your-seat action, nor is it your typical tale of overcoming hardship in the face of great adversity. It’s much more visceral than that. It’s impossible not to lose yourself in the 1961 New York of the Coen Brothers, a blue-grey world of cigarette smoke and overcast skies, and you feel every sung performance (which are, in fact, played live) as if you’re sitting right there in the Gaslight Club. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the kind of film that grabs onto your gut and refuses to let go long after you have left the cinema. Llewyn Davis is not a Ulysses reunited with his beloved Ithaca. But as the final scenes draw to a close with the heart-wrenching solo rendition of “If We Had Wings” and the final frame of a poster for “The Long Journey,” we see that perhaps our lost hero is not so far from home.