A musician’s life is usually precarious, especially if you’re attempting to work as a featured artist. Llewyn Davis, as played by Oscar Isaac, is no exception to this rule. He has no home, no stable relationships, no money, few gigs, and no recording contract. He does have a large stack of remaindered albums, a guitar, and for large chunks of this movie, somebody else’s cat. He also finds it more or less impossible to let anyone get close to him. Many of the incidents which appear in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis come from the memoirs of Dave Van Ronk, who never achieved the fame of some of his Greenwich Village protégés and contemporaries (Bob Dylan, for example), but who achieved a sustained level of success and respect that eludes his fictional surrogate.
Joel Coen admits that the film, set in 1961, ‘doesn’t really have a plot… that’s why we threw the cat in’, but I think it would be fairer to say that the narrative is open-ended. There are certainly plenty of connections between scenes, and a variety of thematic and causal threads weaving through the movie. What it doesn’t have is a conclusion. We see Llewyn Davis scuffling around Greenwich Village at the start, with various efforts made to make some money or to get out, and that’s precisely where we leave him at the end. Given that Van Ronk did indeed remain a resident of the Village until his death in 2002 we might infer that Davis’s life remains the same indefinitely, but Van Ronk was the avuncular lynchpin of New York’s 1960s folk music scene—Davis is just a guy who happens to be there. You might call the film a ‘slice of life’—a broad cloth of relatively random occurrences starting and ending at arbitrarily determined moments.
Aside from the fact that this kind of un-meaningful meander is mimetically closer to lived experience than a closed narrative arc, it’s not immediately clear why they’d want to tell such a story. After all, audiences like to feel that there is some ‘point’ to a story, even if it’s only to express the arbitrary character of experience. But the real heart of this picture is its world-building—the time and place it represents, which elicited an almost physical nostalgia in me, nostalgia for a place I’ve only visited twice, and a time ten years before my birth. Obviously this is a matter of sets, interiors and street scenes—cars, clothes and advertising billboards. But it’s also a matter of characters, and of course, a matter of music.
The Coens have often populated their films with era-appropriate popular songs, but in this case they are more central to the story than ever. Isaac is an accomplished singer and guitarist, and performed Llewyn Davis’s songs himself. When he auditions for a Chicago promoter and is told ‘I don’t see the money in it’, the irony is that his earnest, unadorned style has precisely the ring of authenticity that makes for a successful folk-singer today, but before Bob Dylan (who appears in the film’s closing scene) took the charts by storm, there really wasn’t much of a market for that sort of thing. Llewyn Davis’s uncompromising creative commitment comes off as brattish in the movie.
The Coen Brothers are extremely good at this sort of thing. The kind of plotting strategy they deploy here is something that they refined through a number of thrillers in which the protagonists fail to steer events as they intend. Here they get rid of the high-stakes, sexy, cinematic stylisation, and show us a story of ordinary folk not getting what they want. Well, to me they look like ordinary folk, as I too am an unsuccessful musician, and know many others—but it’s still a loving representation of a fabled scene, a ground zero whose influence on subsequent global music has been profound.
The film as a whole is just wonderfully, meticulously constructed, every shot a period photograph, and every snatch of dialogue indistinguishable from an overheard conversation. Characters like John Goodman’s santería-practising jazz pianist, and Garrett Hedlund’s beat poet seem so much an outgrowth of their times, and are performed with such conviction, that the entirety of early 1960s America erects itself around them. While the title invites us Inside Llewyn Davis, the vividness of these socially situated characters produces an immersive representation of what’s outside them.