The other day, as I set my thirsty boot-heels wanderin’ to a preview screenin’ of Inside Llewyn Davis, I spied in the bowels of a Toronto subway stop a young urban cowboy with an acoustic guitar. There he was, strummin’ an’ a-singin’ Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and it tweren’t even 10 in the morning! Damn, I thought, this has to portend something. After all, the movie I was about to see – feature No. 16 from the Coen brothers – is a bittersweet evocation of the folk-music scene of the early 1960s and the muddled efforts of its title character, a singin’ guitar man himself, to break the cycle of couch-surfing, mooching and basket-passing on Greenwich Village’s bleaker streets.
A couple of hours later I was back at said subway stop, the canyons of my mind full of images, sounds and dialogue from Inside Llewyn Davis. By this time I’d pretty much forgotten about the young urban cowboy. But then who did I spy occupying pretty much the very spot where the cowboy had stood?
A fair damsel. With an acoustic guitar. Singin’. And what was she singin’? Blowin’ in the Wind. Fifty years after Bob Dylan wrote the dang lament holed up in a Village crash pad very much like the ones young Llewyn inhabits, she was singin’ Blowin’ in the Wind! I took it as a sign. A sign of what, though, I have yet to decipher. My cynical, 21st-century side thinks the cowboy and the damsel must have been planted there by the film distributor as a nefarious promotional gambit for Inside Llewyn Davis: Hear the folk songs! See the movie! But my more charitable side thinks, in a Miley Cyrus universe, the present-day folk artist refuses to die! The Shoals of Herring and Been All Around This World live still! Allelu! Meanwhile, my more cosmic side is wondering, Lord, was that You?
I’m admittedly a little soft on embracing that last interpretation, not least because Inside Llewyn Davis is a resolutely anti-redemption movie. The titular character, convincingly played by Oscar Isaac (Drive, Sucker Punch) in a star-making turn, is an irritating anti-hero – a feckless Sisyphus half-heartedly pushing the folk rock of his fitful music “career” up an unforgiving hill only to fall under the weight of his own callow behaviour and a talent bereft of charisma and unredeemed by genius. When Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a big Chicago folk promoter, lets Llewyn audition for him, Llewyn falls to the occasion. He’s not bad, he’s just not great, one more occupant of a musical niche already crammed with pickers, fiddlers and autoharp strummers performing songs about rovers, drowned sailors and abandoned sweethearts. Grossman’s verdict is cruel but accurate: “I don’t see a lot of money here … You’re no front man.”
Llewyn is not entirely the victim of his own self-inflicted melancholia, however: As the film progresses, we learn he once was one-half of a promising duo, Timkin and Davis, the promise abruptly truncated by Timkin’s suicide. Yet even when a kind hand is extended – most notably by a folk-loving Columbia University sociology professor (Ethan Phillips) and his Earth-mother wife (Robin Bartlett) – Llewyn finds a way to bite it, first by losing their cat, Ulysses, then by getting on his puristic high horse by refusing to let the wife harmonize on a song he performs in their Upper West Side apartment. Llewyn’s also on the outs with Jean (Carey Mulligan), the romantic and career half of another folk duo, Jim and Jean (Jim’s played by a bearded Justin Timberlake). Llewyn has flopped on their couch on several occasions and in their bed at least once, too, with the result that Jean is pregnant and now an abortion is in order.
Irksome or irritating characters are, of course, nothing new in the Coen oeuvre. Marge, the cop protagonist in 1996’s Fargo, was just such a figure, yet somehow Frances McDormand’s feet-on-the-floor decency, pluck and determination made her worth rooting for. You don’t end up rooting for Llewyn Davis because there’s not much to root for. And this imparts a weird sort of impersonality or cold-bloodedness to the film’s core. You watch it as the Greek gods must have watched puny humanity from their perch on Olympus. Even when, near film’s end, Llewyn’s given the opportunity to connect with his estranged, dementia-plagued father, now living in a merchant-marine rest home, the Coens (typically?) rob it of any grace.
In fact, Inside Llewyn Davis only really kicks into gear at its 55-minute mark. Unsurprisingly, this occurs with the arrival of Coen venerable John Goodman, playing an acerbic jazz hipster who has little truck with the folk idiom but a large appetite for heroin. Prior to Goodman’s appearance, the movie has been kept afloat largely by the triple whammy of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography (his desaturated palette a perfect evocation of a bitter New York winter), T Bone Burnett’s music supervision and a production design, courtesy of Jess Gonchor (No Country for Old Men), that says “1961” without any self-reflexive flash. With Goodman, the viewer finally gets a fully inhabited character (unlike, say, Mulligan, whose Jean seems more about play-acting than immersion) with a touch of evil and the film gains an edge it never loses.
Ignore those reviews that claim Inside Llewyn Davis is based on The Mayor of MacDougal Street, the posthumous 2005 memoir by Bob Dylan’s gravel-voiced contemporary Dave Van Ronk. The boys read the book for time, place and scene, I’m sure, but they likely tossed it in the recycling bin as soon as they finished and let their wonderfully misanthropic imaginations do the rest.
Inside Llewyn Davis opens in Toronto Dec. 20 and other major Canadian cities Dec. 25.