Llewyn Davis is a man out of sync and out of sorts, heckling and glumly retorting his way through the Greenwich Village folk universe of the early Sixties with perfect deadpan sarcasm. His singing partner has committed suicide, his solo album has stiffed, his agent is useless, he’s gotten his friend’s wife pregnant, he’s homeless, and it’s getting cold . . . and he has to worry about someone else’s cat.
But . . . whenever he picks up his guitar and sings, he’s an angel. And the instant the music stops, he’s out of sync again.The peculiar magic of the latest movie from Joel and Ethan Coen, one of their greatest, lies in the attention and care they devote to rendering this shifting of gears from harmony to disharmony and back. We have many movies in which a young, untested singer, bound for glory, is thrust before an audience for the first time and gradually comes to command its collective attention (Sissy Spacek’s Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter). We also have quite a few about musicians coming apart on stage (same film), musicians of limited talent reaching beyond their abilities (Jennifer Jason Leigh in Georgia), and washed-up musicians re-gathering their energies for a slow and rocky walk to redemption (Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies). However, I don’t think there has ever been a film about a talented musical artist who, by a peculiar combination of luck, temperament, and destiny, consistently finds himself in the right place at the wrong time. And the miracle of Inside Llewyn Davis—another odyssey all the way back to square one, like Gabriel Byrne’s in Miller’s Crossing and Jeff Bridges’s in The Big Lebowski—is that the joy and magic of making music, the bustling exuberance and creativity of a new, glittering folk scene, is fully and infectiously felt, even with Llewyn’s bitter recalcitrance at its center and the cold-bloodedness of so many managers and promoters at its periphery. The very air and light of the Village-and-beyond circa 1962 feels charmed, no matter how cold and desperate the action gets, and the film is as excitingly populated as a Bruegel canvas by characters like Justin Timberlake’s sweet Jim and Carey Mulligan’s sour Jean; Stark Sands’s gangly, lovable Troy; and John Goodman’s uproarious Falstaffian junkie Roland. Even Llewyn seems to sense the excitement, amid the deflation of being relegated to the essential but secondary role of the “authentic” musician’s musician, there to provide the ornery unpredictability that fills out the big picture. The only way to bring a character like Llewyn to full-blown life was to cast someone who is as good an actor as he is a musician. The Coens and their musical collaborator T-Bone Burnett auditioned every singer-actor and actor-singer in America between the ages of 20 and 30 before they found the wiry and dark-eyed Oscar Isaac, who summons up just the right amount of wearily disgusted resignation, and who also plays and sings an exquisite version of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.”
“The kind of love I have for the film is not as a filmmaker adoring a child,” wrote Nick Ray of his 1952 movie The Lusty Men, “it’s as a part of the literature of America.” Joel and Ethan Coen might say the same of their own body of work, in which they have lovingly rendered a series of wildly different American folkways, each with its own particular fantasies, delusions, and pathologies. In the process, they have helped us to preserve our precious strangeness and exoticism. With Inside Llewyn Davis, they have created not only a ravishing comic portrait of a world gone by, but a haunting new American archetype: the outside man forever looking in.