Inside Llewyn Davis: a tricksy film that does no justice to the early 1960s American folk music scene

Ethan and Joel Coen, “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013)

Inspired by and based loosely on the life of Dave van Ronk, “Inside Llewyn Davis” follows a week in the life of the fictitious Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk guitarist / singer, who makes one bad decision after another and ends up back at square one after a trip to Chicago to audition for a well-known music promoter and join his record label fails. The film has the air of a fairy-tale, complete with portents and tests of character along the way, all of which Davis either fails to heed or just fails anyway, and is of a piece with an earlier Coen brothers film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – heck, John Goodman even figures here as one of many antagonists with whom Davis has to contend.

At the beginning, the year is 1961 and Davis is playing a gig at the Gaslight Club. His character quickly becomes obvious: he’s not very supportive of the other musicians who play there and he’s a bit of a coward who runs away when he should stand his ground and assert himself. After the show, his encounters with his sister and a fellow musician, Jean (Carey Mulligan), who accuses him of being the father of her unborn child, demonstrate his lack of feeling for others’ problems and struggles in life, and a failure to take responsibility for the damage he causes to friends and family. Above all, his treatment of various marmalade cats that pop in and out of his life shows a lack of compassion. Even his flight to Chicago to meet a label mogul, Bud Grossman (F Murray Abrahams), is an avoidance of responsibility: during the time that he is away, he should have been comforting Jean who is anxiously awaiting her appointment with a doctor.

As a musician, Davis is merely so-so: though his guitar-playing is decent enough, he can’t write emotionally expressive lyrics – all his subject matter is second or third-hand – and in his live performances he can’t connect with his audience and hold their attention. As the movie progresses, Davis becomes more and more a pathetic caricature devoid of compassion and feeling for others and less of a human being himself. By the end of the film, his week has come full circle and he finds himself back at the university professor friend’s house where he dossed before and first met the first of a number of marmalade cats who will mysteriously guide him on his particular odyssey. Davis’s week in effect has become a microcosm of his wider life in which he is forever running in his own existential hamster-wheel with no reward in sight. It’s supposed to be an underlining comment by the Coens that the only people Davis feels at home with are pretentious arty academic types who think that being friends with a down-and-out stereotypical bohemian folkie gives them authenticity.

On the whole, the acting is excellent with the attractive Oscar Isaac injecting some necessary humanity and warmth into what is basically an unattractive and repugnant one-dimensional character. He is ably backed by Mulligan and Justin Timberlake who together form a duo Jean and Jim Berkey, who in the Coen universe could have been the genesis of the famous folk-singing trio Peter, Paul and Mary if Davis had agreed to team up with them. On the other hand, in his few scenes John Goodman as has-been jazz musician Roland Turner chews up the scenery even when fast asleep or blacked out from a heroin overdose.

The cinematography evokes a particular noirish mood of the early 1960s and an America at the tail end of the repressive and grim McCarthy era and not quite yet on the cusp of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, and Lyndon B Johnson’s social reforms that transformed society, eliminating poverty and racial discrimination for a generation of millions of Americans. The camerawork becomes downright menacing and spooky during the travel scenes to and from Chicago and serves to present opportunites for Davis to reconnect with humans and animals which he fails to take.

As a character study, the film is too facile: Davis fails practically every test put in front of him. That’s just so unrealistic and alienates the film’s protagonist from its audiences. The film would have succeeded if Davis chose a few times at least to connect with others and missed every other opportunity. Indeed, the film might have resonated with its audience if Davis had been conceived as a caring musician of middling ability who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and gives up his failing career as a musician at just the point when a young Bob Dylan was to burst onto the scene and revive public interest in American folk music. Instead, the Coens turn “Inside Llewyn Davis” into just yet another of their usual Coen-esque flicks in which they play a capricious God who enjoys toying with His victims in an indifferent and uncaring universe.

The film does no justice to Dave van Ronk, whose life was picked over for various scenes in the Coens’ film: van Ronk worked with the merchant marine just as Davis has done in the past and will do again, supported leftist causes (the most the Coens can bring themselves to refer to this is a short scene in which Davis tries to retrieve his old union card and is asked if he is a Communist) and mentored Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Whereas Davis looks down upon other folk musicians as competitors to be despised as “careerists” if they happen to be different or connect with their audiences. From what I have read of van Ronk, he seems to have been a caring person who was keenly aware of the social and political problems of his time, read avidly (he was a science fiction fan) and joined leftist organisations.

The film does touch on important issues such as musical “authenticity”: are musicians who pursue music as a career and who tailor their performances to meet audience or record label boss demands any more or any less “authentic” than those whose voices are so idiosyncratic that they cannot be pigeon-holed and smoothed over for a mass audience? is Davis right or wrong in spurning the turn to pop music that Jim and Jean Berkey are making? I sense here a nasty message from the Coens which suggests that musicians who for some reason refuse to co-operate with the music industry and submit to commercial pressures and influence on their music to become “careerists” are self-indulgent arrogant pricks while the ones who buckle under and give up what makes them unique to please the recording industry, churning out hit single after hit single for their masters and getting very little in return financially and artistically, are truly genuine and giving of themselves. It’s as if having long ago made their Faustian pact with Hollywood, the Coens (like Davis) are jealous of those who might compete with them and succeed but who still retain their real individuality and quirkiness.

There is a scene in which Davis assists Jim Berkey and another folk singer in recording “Please Mr Kennedy”, a song referencing then US President John F Kennedy’s determination to send an American astronaut to the moon; this is one of the few parts of the film that ground it in its early 1960s period yet it’s also a part totally devoid of political and social commentary on the period. This is of a piece with other Coen films which also take place in a universe where apparently issues of political, cultural and economic import don’t exist. Everything is down to chance and the will of Fate.

This could have been a very touching film about human frailty and how good people get ground down with rejection and failure at every turn simply because no matter how hard they try they’re just not good enough or can’t contort their square selves into round holes. Instead “Inside Llewyn Davis” becomes just another tricksy exhibit in the Coen brothers’ flea circus, leaving this particular audience member with the feeling that she got conned.

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