“You’ve probably heard that one before, because it was never new and it never gets old and it’s a folk song.”
In “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen brothers sing the blue-grays for a handsome, talented, yet affectless and couch-surfing young man trapped in circles of failure, or more accurately, near-success—literally, as the few days depicted on the lovingly imagined and detailed Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s around the time of Bob Dylan’s supernovaing into the culture—as surely as a record goes ‘round and ‘round. Part of Davis’ stage patter are the words above, and sweetly, it suits the film itself.
As Davis, thirty-three-year-old Oscar Isaac, Juilliard-trained and himself a talented singer-songwriter, is at the center of the film (except for the moments absconded with by a golden tabby played by six cats of differing temperament), if not quite its heart. As with the Coens’ startling recent output, Llewyn is another protagonist to whom fate must be dealt, and who must always be a few steps behind in figuring out what the hell is going on. He’s beguiled by tricksters at every turn, from the wife of his best friend who he’s had sex with (a spite-spinning Carey Mulligan) to a curt, sinister Chicago club owner (F. Murray Abraham) to a bloviating jazz musician (an epic John Goodman). You could read the “inside” as being inside Llewyn Davis’ head: these are all the voices, the self-critical voices that will keep him from success, parceled out among the figures who criss-cross his path.
Near-comedy, near-tragedy, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is close to great, and in its extremely concrete yet endlessly elusive form, close to perfection. I had a few surmises as I watched, a few more as I talked about it with colleagues, and there’s half a dozen articles I’ve read that circle around further possibilities. Like the largely downbeat songs assembled by music producer T-Bone Burnett, “Llewyn Davis” is endlessly suggestive, as if worn cool and smooth through retelling, like a stone in your shoe or an elegant myth: When Sisyphus met Ulysses coming through the rye, or some such.
With journalists, the Coens are known to hold everything very close to their chest. Some interviews, it’s like war: if your brother is about to take a bullet, you take the bullet for him. Joel might stop Ethan or Ethan might make a terse interjection when Joel’s about to elaborate. But with actors, I ask Isaac, do you get movies to see, books to read? In this case, there are obviously songs. “They don’t really talk about big thematic things, or intellectual ideas, or symbolism, or the meaning of things,” Isaac says. “It’s all very practical and pragmatic. They don’t ask me to do any homework, they don’t tell me to listen to anything in particular either, it’s kind of dictated in the script. They gave me a CD of some of the songs they were thinking about. If maybe they saw I wasn’t doing a lot of work… but was bringing songs, I decided to learn [how to do the guitar-playing style of the era called] ‘Travis-picking,’ no one told me to do Travis-picking. So, I felt like a lot of the choices that I made were in line with what they wanted. It was kind of a thing, like ‘Well, it’s not broken. So there is no need to fix it.’ So there wasn’t any kind of dogmatic thing. What they do is create an environment for you to do your thing. It’s kind of a phenomenon because their tone is so specific, and yet they don’t seem to be dictating that tone. It’s more like baking, where they throw in the ingredients and this thing comes up, they just know how to throw in the ingredients.
“But, at the same time,” Isaac continues, “Joel and Ethan, particularly Joel, always in-between takes would talk to me about his thoughts about life, and art, and artists that he liked. Not because I needed to do that to be good in the role, but just because, but just he cared enough to talk to me about that stuff, you know? And for me that was the most valuable part of whole thing.”
The screenplay is just as elusive as the movie. In both cases, I thought to myself, “This thing is kinda perfect, and yet I don’t know what it is.” I hear the music, but I don’t catch all the mysteries of the lyrics. Is it literal or is it something densely suggestive, is it simply something like a zen koan? Isaac says, “Yeah, exactly. You read the script, I think the thing particularly with this one is there is no way to tell what the music is going to bring to it. Wouldn’t you say? I mean, we’ve got full live performances and those songs are the heart of the movie. I mean, really, they are the only bridge that you have into Llewyn’s soul.”
He’s on a kind of treadmill the duration of the film. He gets no moment to reflect about what he is doing. “Yeah, there is never a dull moment of reflection. Even in the car [on a road trip to Chicago], he’s just trying to stay awake. That’s kind of amazing,” he says, laughing. “In a way it’s kind of a procedural.” Indeed, it is a kind of “ CSI Greenwich Village.”
“Yeah,” Isaac continues, “He has actions that he has to perform to survive, and there’s conflict. I mean, conflict is drama, and it’s condensed into two hours. So they just throw a lot of conflict in there. And it’s not unrealistic you know? I mean, I know people that every day is a calamity. You know?”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens Friday, December 20 at River East, Landmark Century, Evanston Cinearts and Landmark Renaissance. A trailer is below. The cat is cool.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.