Coens' tragicomic story of Greenwich Village folk scene is a sharp, evocative portrait of a world about to be changed by Bob Dylan
Those of us who know Bob Dylan’s story well can point to his transformative influence on the folk music scene in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. What is remarkable is how Dylan shaped his own style from a unique amalgam of folk singers of the time, borrowing what he needed from Woody Guthrie and absorbing the best of the rest from everyone else. That didn’t explain his genius, nor does it explain his subsequent disgust with traditional folksinging – disgust that was manifested in his going electric, infusing his lyrics with rock-n-roll poetry, and refusing to be lumped in with the protest folkies of the time.
While none of that may seem to matter in Joel and Ethan Coen’s melancholy meditation on the time before Dylan changed everything, awareness of the schism that was brewing makes “Inside Llewyn Davis” all the more interesting. The movie captures a distinct moment in time when a scraggly young man from Hibbing, Minnesota struggled to find his place on the brink of a wayward movement about to be forever altered.
Watching the folk singers in “Llewyn Davis,” it's easy to see how a guy like Dylan could completely overwhelm anything else being offered up at the time. How do you justify hard-knock ballads about your life when the guy right behind you is Bob Dylan? A man who shows up at the mic playing his guitar like everyone else but departing from the traditional laments of folk music to write lyrics you’ve never heard before.
Into this seemingly uncorrupted world comes Llewyn Davis, a folk singer who was part of a singing duo until his partner killed himself. That's the essential premise, but the film is about so much more than the events of the time. You can almost see these guys as disciples in a less subversive “Life of Brian,” as dozens of scrappy young men like Dylan loitered around bars with no winter coat, a guitar slung over their shoulder, and a vulnerable neediness that women can’t help but respond to.
But this film is only partly about a peripheral player in what would become Bob Dylan’s world. “Llewyn Davis,” in fact, isn’t about success at all. It’s about failure, artistic failure, personal failure, and how the smallest fumbles can forever alter the course of your life — a cat accidentally gets out, you forget to use a condom, you’re trying to become a big folk singer right before Dylan comes to town.
But what if the big break you’re hoping for never comes? You are then left to sift through the wreckage of that dream. Poor Llewyn can’t get anything right. He keeps hammering at the dream but there is no magic moment of success waiting for him, no startling bursts of genius. The only remarkable thing about him is what a fuck-up he is. He ends up playing the part of Sisyphus, rolling the big rock up the hill only to see it roll back down.
Joel and Ethan Coen play with the idea of timing, of circumstance and consequence, in various ways. Every time Llewyn is given the opportunity to do the right thing he almost always botches his shot. At the same time, Llewyn is doing the best he can to make things right. It isn’t for lack of trying that he screws everything up—it is simply bad luck, mixed with the false perception that perseverance will pay off for everyone in the end, the cruel myth that the American Dream really is accessible to everyone.
Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn Davis, a character based very loosely on folksinger Dave Van Ronk, who wrote a memoir of Greenwich Village in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and was a significant influence on Dylan. Davis is a man with big dreams who has no clue as to how to live. He gets by bouncing from one friend’s couch to another. His records don’t sell. His money is dwindling.
Through the film, you can hear pulse of Dylan himself, and his obvious influence on the Coen brothers. Not just in how Llewyn is portrayed to evoke a figure who helped prime Greenwich Village for the likes of Dylan, but in themes that weigh heavy in Dylan’s own canon — themes of happenstance, absurdity, love gone wrong, and fate.
It is fate, in fact, that seems to always chase after Llewyn, and simple twists of fate that plague him. Even when he’s doing his best, there are still forces beyond his control to thwart his efforts.
The Coens have made what is likely to be one of the best films of the year, and certainly among their own best work. They’ve stepped a bit out of their comfort zone in some respects, especially with the absence of their usual cinematographer, Roger Deakins. The film has a different look than we're accustomed to seeing from the Coens, because they're working with Bruno Delbonnel for the first time.
Carey Mulligan very nearly steals the show as as Llewyn’s fed up ex-girlfriend. John Goodman is something of a surreal Mephistopheles, as usual, and other famous faces continually show up to surprise us. There is also the bit with the cat, but to say any more would ruin one of the best things about the film.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” hovers somewhere between comedy and tragedy, never committing fully to either. The film is part of the world of the Coen brothers, which mostly doesn’t trust that any of us will have or deserve a happy ending. But neither is it unrelenting bleak.
What matters, finally, to Llewyn Davis isn’t that he becomes famous, or that he dies trying — but that, for a few brief minutes he’s up there singing. He knows his song well, though it takes time for him to realize that to achieve greatness in music — or any art for that matter — is to access parts of yourself most of us keep hidden. Dylan has always had an exceptional gift to express that. Davis has it too, but it’s harder for him to find and impossible for him to hold onto.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” comes like a breath of fresh air at Cannes, an accomplished, breathtaking work, a portrait of a specific time and place before everything changed. Like Dylan himself, the Coens keep evolving, never settling on one style for very long.
Dylan is still playing music, still writing songs; the fire that burns within him, one gifted him by the fates, still obliterates all others. But that doesn’t mean tales of the Llewyn Davises who live in his shadow should remain untold. Our best stories are not just about the brightest supernovas. Our collective dreams are also lit by twinkling stars that don’t even have a name but hold their place in the firmament nonetheless, forced into faltering orbits by wrong turns, bad timing, and fate.