Find an eternal loser and the Coen brothers will make a moviefor him. In Inside Llewyn Davis the Coens find their greatest loser. Davis is a folk singer passionate about his craft but not the commercial process needed to get that art out in front of his audience. His musical honesty on those who have sold out has him lurching from small club to club, crashing from sofa to sofa, his agent exasperated because Davis won’t change the least bit musically and friends and relatives avoiding him because his “honesty” makes it impossible to put up with the jerk. So Davis, a very good singer but unfortunately not a great one, watches himself flutter and float, seeing lesser talent than him floating up because they can commit to putting it on wax.
Davis does his best singing in the now and not the forever. He prefers to be a ghost mistakenly thinking that makes him an artist, never knowing that he is the cautionary folk tale. Not surprisingly Davis story is a shaggy dog tale, really a shabby cat fable, one that is a big orange Tabby named Ulysses that Davis is forever trying to return to its owners and always chasing when it decides to go for a jaunt in the brisk winter sunshine. The music and the cat are a brief nod to the Coen’s other Odyssey reference (a saga the brothers have admitted to never reading) of O Brother Where Art Thou. Both shared the wondrous addition of T. Bone Burnett as their executive musical producer.
It doesn’t help that Davis brings out the worst in everyone. Davis’ negativity has hardened into a rough mournful edge of self-protection ever since his singing partner, Mike (singing voice provided by Marcus Mumford) tossed himself off the George Washington Bridge after the tanking of their first album. Every song Davis sings must be an elegy, anything short of that is just a betrayal to the memory of Mike. The wistful and forgiving tone is something of a rarity in a Coen’s brother movie. Compassion for their losers is not usually their thing—cerebral, existential, philosophical, yes, touching– almost never.
Llewyn Davis is loosely based on the late singer Dave Van Ronk, whose fall intersected with Dylan’s rise and a folk music resurgence. The facts have been altered to keep the myth alive. A little Kerouac is tossed in when Davis has a road trip to Chicago with a crippled, drug-addicted jazz musician (John Goodman) and a vaguely Neal Cassady-esque driver played by Garrett Hedlund (who also played Cassady in Walter Salles’ On the Road). The songs which both enrich and complete the movie are all played in their entirety and Oscar Isaac plays guitar and lends his clear, assured voice to the sad ditties that are Davis’ musical soul. Brunno Delbonnel wintry, desaturated cinematography keeps the creeping anxiety balanced between a nightmarish dread and a slow, sad dream.
The 60’s Village Folk Scene imagined here is all personal. None of the bigger historical, political issues of the day ever creep in. The Coens are trying for a timeless fable of failure. Maybe one day the Coens will make a different kind of movie—one where the hero is a success and the world is a failure. Until then this rag to riches stories that stubbornly stays rags will do.
Inside Llewyn Davis gets a B+ from me.