After a long take of his performance of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” the titular folk singer of “Inside Llewyn Davis” tells his 1961 audience in Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Cafe, “If it was never new and it doesn’t get old, it’s a folk song.”
In a certain sense, this is a statement that defines Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) throughout the movie: unhappy (or at least melancholy) about his life of gigging and crashing on various couches around Manhattan, dreaming of making it big, but not being willing to change to get what he wants. It’s understandable—folk songs endure because they’re familiar, they’re known, but it frustrates everyone around him.
In the week of Llewyn’s life that we witness—bookended by his performing at the Gaslight and his getting beaten up by a stranger in an alley behind the café (the first time we see it, it’s a flash-forward)—the beating he takes is nothing compared to the physical and emotional miles he’s traveled.
The first bit of bad news Llewyn receives is that he can’t sleep on the couch of his friends, Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), a couple who also play folk songs but have an easier time fitting into the mainstream, something that Llewyn can’t do. His disdain for popular music (the film is set in the pre-Bob Dylan days when folk music wasn’t yet a dominant genre) is evident—he rolls his eyes as the Gaslight crowd sings along to Jim and Jean’s rendition of the trite “500 Miles.”
After it’s revealed that Llewyn isn’t welcome because Jean thinks he got her pregnant, Llewyn has to find some cash to pay for her abortion without letting Jim know. The search takes him from his agent—who breaks the news that his solo album has made no money—to his sister, who suggests he give up music. “What, quit? Just exist?” Llewyn asks.
Early in the film, we hear a version of “Dink’s Song” sung by Llewyn and his former singing partner who threw himself off the George Washington Bridge (and sounds a lot like Marcus Mumford). Watching the movie in light of this song, it’s clear Llewyn’s philosophy is “life ain’t worth living without the one you love.” In his case, without his music, there’s not much else out there. At the same time, we see another way to look at the film: how he learns to live without his partner and make it on his own.
Though forthcoming with advice, Llewyn’s sister doesn’t pony up—but Llewyn ends up getting roped into a recording session with Jim. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, Jim enlists Llewyn to sing backup on “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a ridiculous song about not wanting to be launched into space, whose mass appeal revolts Llewyn. It also features the stylings of Al Cody (Adam Driver), who injects the occasional “uh oh” into the song and rounds out the lower registers.
With this scene, like much of the movie (and indeed their canon) the Coens elicit laughs not from slapstick or obvious jokes, but by putting the audience in their protagonist’s shoes so they see just how laughably absurd life can be.
And it only gets stranger. Llewyn goes to Chicago in a last-ditch effort to get his name out there, joining a trip with a washed up jazz musician (John Goodman) and his silent driver (Garret Hedlund). At least half of the trip to Chicago is made with a cat in tow, since he accidentally let it out of a friend’s apartment and didn’t have the key.
So when Llewyn gets back to New York and is offered a show at the Gaslight, there’s a glimmer of hope. But he has to pay the piper; in this case, it’s getting his ass kicked for some drunken heckling.
It speaks to their skill as filmmakers and storytellers that the Coen brothers manage to imbue the deeply flawed Llewyn with enough talent and humanity to make him likeable and send the audience on the journey with him. Perhaps the most fitting motif in the movie is the cat, who actually belongs to his late partner’s parents. Like Llewyn, he found his way back home. And when it’s revealed that the cat’s called Ulysses, it doesn’t matter that we leave off where we started—it was all about the journey, anyway, and the Coens make it a hell of a ride.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is playing at Regal Union Square Stadium 14 at 850 Broadway, between E. 13th and 14th streets. Tickets are $8.75 with an AMC gold ticket from the TIC.