Whenever we regard a period of history as an age of innocence, it tells more about our wishes in the present than it does about the age in question, which was always much less innocent than we think. It’s good to remember this, and not to let mythology about the past obscure the flawed humanity we all share.
Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, resurrects a special time in musical history—the folk music scene of the early 60s. It tells of a couple of weeks in the life of a fictional folk singer named Llewyn Davis, and although it has satiric elements, its tone is gentle, melancholy, warm and subtle, not qualities that I’ve ever associated before with a Coen brothers film.
Oscar Isaac plays Davis, living from hand to mouth in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1961, playing occasional gigs at places like the Gaslight, where the performers were paid by passing the basket among the audience. He has a beautiful voice, and the songs he chooses to sing are mostly delicate ballads of love, grief, and loss. But the man himself is a different thing entirely: jaded, cynical, beaten down by circumstance, and impatient with the failings of other people. He was once part of a singing duo with some promise, but his partner died, and now his efforts to succeed as a solo act are met with indifference. He spends his nights sleeping on his friends’ couches and his days trying their patience.
We meet Jean, played by Carey Mulligan, partner in a little group called Jean & Jim—Jim played with amusing sincerity by Justin Timberlake. Jean lets us know how exasperating Llewyn Davis can be. Her scenes raging at him for his irresponsible behavior, which includes possibly getting her pregnant, are funny and painful at the same time. Then in a desperate move, Davis ends up hitching a ride to Chicago in the hopes of getting a contract with a producer there. His driver is a tight-lipped Beat poet, and the other passenger is a junkie and jazz composer with a huge ego played in outrageous style by John Goodman. The trip turns out to be a journey through hell. And throughout Davis’s misadventures there appears and reappears an orange cat that he is forced to take care of, and this thrusts him into situations that are absurd and hilarious. This cat serves also as a kind of symbol for Davis’s sad-sack existence.
This is really a new departure for the Coens, I think. There is a real sense of affection here for a beautiful loser, a counterpart to Bob Dylan, the man who came to the folk scene in ’61 and changed it forever. Davis stands in for all the people who didn’t make it, who for whatever reason weren’t able to transcend their circumstances. And despite how unlikable he often seems, there’s still the feeling that he loves the music, and that that tenderness is the part of himself he struggles with the most.
Oscar Isaac, who I don’t believe has ever had a leading role in a movie before, is wonderful. He’s a singer as well, and he does his own singing here. None of it seems like phony nostalgia or imitation, it’s all very genuine. The Coens have really captured the mood and texture of that time and made it connect with the same yearnings and sufferings that musicians and other artists still experience today. Inside Llewyen Davis, with its quiet authority and intelligent sense of humor, is in many ways a much-needed exception to the rules of contemporary film.