by Elizabeth EstenWhen I was eight years old, the musical stylings of The Steve Miller Band and Frank Zappa were fixed in my young mind thanks to my father. But the one artist that stuck with me most of all was Arlo Guthrie, whose old school approach to folk-sounding music permeated my mind from the first moment I heard it. The soothing sound of the acoustic guitar and the simplicity of the approach stayed with me more than anything. And even now that I’m older, listening to folk music brings me not only a sense of comfort, but also a feeling of nostalgia. When I turned 16 and fell in love with film, I never dreamed a project would come along that would not only tap into my deep love of folk music, but the power of simple storytelling as well. Luckily for me, Inside Llewyn Davis does all of that perfectly in every way.
Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk musician living in New York City in 1961. Following the death of his friend and musical collaborator, Davis struggles to not only survive on scraps, but to be taken seriously as a solo artist. The structure of the film is that of an old story your grandfather would tell you while sitting near a fireplace on a cold day: a folk tale of a man struggling to not only discover who he is, but also find some semblance of success and happiness in a world that won’t allow it. The Coen Brothers present us with this man, crafting a character that keeps the film compelling on all accounts.
Llewyn Davis is one of my all time favorite movie characters, and not just because he’s portrayed by one of my favorite actors. Like many Coen characters (such as Barton Fink, for example), Davis is a man with great talent and a lot of flaws. He’s very rude to the people who care for him and constantly only thinks of himself. You’d think this makes him a completely unsympathetic character, but somehow Isaac injects enough humanity in him to get the audience to feel for his cause. Davis has recently lost a dear friend; a person he made great music with and one of the people that helped define his work. Without him, Davis has resorted to the simple gimmick of a man and his guitar singing old folk songs.
Davis also shows clear remorse for having sex with his long time frenemy, Jean (Carey Mulligan), and even agrees to pay for her abortion after she becomes pregnant. He has touches of Mark Renton from Trainspotting in him, occasionally caring for others while simultaneously being lost in his own head and the world around him. Davis’s character arc isn’t explicit, since the story comes full circle in a literal sense. He is still selfish and stubborn by the end, but he shows little signs of change when he performs a song he associates with his dear friend with revised lyrics that better reflect the time it was written in.
The New York of the film is not the hopeful one that is often portrayed in many other films. The color scheme is very gray and dark, without bright colors in any scene. This reflects the overall bleak tone of the film, but it works wonders to create a world in which Davis and many others like him strive for success, but realize that unless you truly have the talent and something new to bring to the table, you’re not going to get very far. This is a New York of dark skies and a cold breeze, no matter the hour of the day, where your friend’s couch is the only place to stay, and you’ll likely end up playing the same low key venue over and over again just to make ends meet and survive.Inside Llewyn Davis is also remarkable in the way it subverts the classic tale of the struggling musician. A lot of filmmakers approach this type of story with the framing that our main character is some type of unappreciated genius who by the end of the film gets discovered in some contrived fashion, eventually becoming an unlikely success story. The Coens frame Davis for what he really is: just another folk singer with the same exact shtick as his fellow musicians. He’s talented for sure, but he’s not the next great folk artist. Because of Davis’s emotional instability, his inability to go out of his comfort zone and his refusal to perform with anyone else besides his now-dead partner, Davis will likely never be a truly successful artist. It could be years before he even gains a small following in Greenwich Village.
One of my favorite moments for Davis’s character is during his audition with a producer named Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). After essentially bearing his soul to Grossman with a gorgeous rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane,” Grossman’s first reaction is not that of praise, but one of rejection. The producer immediately tells Davis he doesn’t see any money in his style, but he still offers an opportunity to join his newest trio as a backup singer. Feeling utterly lost, disappointed and confused, Davis rejects the offer, not wanting to compromise his artistic integrity as a folk artist. In any other film, Davis would have been signed on the spot and given all he’s ever wanted. But in the world the Coens build, rejection is inevitable unless you have that special something.
Llewyn Davis may have the ambition and drive to try to make it in the music world, but it’s his stubbornness that has cursed him to a life of obscurity. The film doesn’t view ambition as a guaranteed pass to finding success. That’s the way Davis sees it, but it’s incredibly far from the truth. He is a man deeply stuck in his ways, refusing to reach out and take any criticism from others. This is what kills his chances at ever becoming the next great artist. As mentioned before, Davis was offered an opportunity to work with Grossman, just not in the capacity he desired. Imagine if he had taken that deal. That would have been a small step towards a dream. But not wanting to compromise, he refuses and walks out of the theater defeated. Davis essentially shoots himself in the foot any chance he can get, whether that be not taking Grossman’s offer or getting drunk and yelling at a performer later in the film. Just possessing the passion and drive to go after it doesn’t automatically make him great. It’s in your ability to accept criticism and use any chance you get to share your art with the world that makes you successful. Davis, in all honesty, will probably spend the next few years performing at the Gaslight just to make a quick buck.
Beyond the thoughtful construction of the main character, it’s the music of the film that really stands out as the credits role. The film has no instrumental score throughout, so the only music present comes from the live performances, which are some of the film’s best moments. All the performances bring out a powerful simplicity that keeps the film compelling. Many of these musical displays consist of these simple elements: one to three performers, a guitar and a basic setting. Whether that last element be a small cafe or an apartment building, these songs help to create great character moments, like when Davis performs “Shoals of Herring” for his estranged, dying father. This film easily has one of the best soundtracks I have had the pleasure of listening to. All the songs are old standards from the American Folk genre with only a few originals, and all of them work excellently within the films narrative. From “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” as the film opens and we first meet the man whose journey we’ll be experiencing to “Fare Thee Well,” when that same man finally accepts the death of his partner, the music works wonders as a storytelling device, helping to push the development of key themes forward.
Inside Llewyn Davis is an exercise in simplicity, proving that a man sitting in a small cafe playing an acoustic guitar and singing an old folk song can hold more power and emotion than you’d ever expect.
5 out of 5 stars