Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Opens at the Charles Theatre Dec. 20
The new Coen Brothers' film opens with a long-take close-up of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), surrounded by pitch-black darkness on the right side, his angular face bathed in a spotlight's stream on the left. He casts his eyes down as he sings a downbeat folk tune into a chrome microphone-the first visual cue of Inside Llewyn Davis' era, 1961. As the camera lingers, we can observe Isaac's face closely: the mop of curly black hair, his distinctive nose, the coarse beard. The Coens let their audience soak up everything about the shot before they cut away to reveal the rest of the scene: a subdued audience sitting at petite wooden tables littered with espresso cups and saucers and ashtrays, cigarette smoke trails up into the dank basement air of the famed Gaslight Café. Llewyn sits onstage on a wooden chair planted in the center of a shabby oriental rug. He strums an acoustic guitar.
During the various full-length onscreen songs in Llewyn Davis (certainly not a musical), the camera's cuts create tremendous motion in otherwise motionless performances. The same principle applies, to an extent, to the film's main character; he's doing something but he's not going anywhere.
Llewyn is one-half of a broken folk duo, now striking out on his own with a solo record. We're not sure of the fate of his former partner, Mikey, but everyone misses him, especially in comparison to Llewyn, who relies less on the good will of others than on outright mooching. He's without a permanent bed in New York City, so he crashes wherever he can wrangle a night on the couch. This includes Jim and Jean's place (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan, respectively), though Jean has unvarnished contempt for Llewyn.
We soon learn why: She's pregnant. It could be Jim's baby-in which case she would want it-but it could be Llewyn's, a prospect that makes her fume. "You should be wearing condom on condom, then wrap it in electric tape," Jean admonishes furiously. Llewyn, ineffectual and self-centered, comes back that it takes two to tango, but Jean bulldozes his reply. She calls him "King Midas' idiot brother." He has to pay for the abortion, and he can't tell Jim.
This setup vaguely propels the plot of Inside Llewyn Davis, which resembles A Serious Man crossed with O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Llewyn, our antihero, drifts from apartment to apartment over perhaps a week, his search for money and a couch introducing us to new characters along the way. There's his wizened, penny-pinching agent, Mel (Jerry Grayson), a hunched-over Jewish man with a tottering secretary (the two of them comically bicker in a burst of dialogue that exemplifies the Coens' writing). There's sunny, ever-polite Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), a private on leave from Fort Dix who sheds his Army duds to sing folk music (he, Jim, and Jean harmonize during a rendition of "Five Hundred Miles" at the Gaslight). There's vociferous yet sleepy Roland Turner (John Goodman), a snarling jazz musician cruising to Chicago with a near-mute valet (Garrett Hedlund) who only breaks his silence to recite Beat poetry. And there are the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), an academic couple who always welcome Llewyn to stay overnight or for dinner in exchange for showing off "their folk-music friend" to their rotating cast of dinner guests.
The assorted characters and settings don't exactly compose another retelling of The Odyssey, though the Coens work in a reference to it, but the pervasiveness of music in Llewyn Davis and its meticulously curated sets recall O Brother. T Bone Burnett produced the soundtrack for both films, and the music forms essential plot points in both. To summon Greenwich Village-circa-1960s musical culture, Burnett draws on big-time modern names in folk and bluegrass like Chris Thile, Marcus Mumford, and Chris Eldridge. Isaac performs several songs himself, his voice gritty but approachable.
In Llewyn Davis, the music seems even more central than in O Brother; it's Llewyn's only identifiable driving force. He's otherwise aimless. After ping-ponging around New York, trying to scrape together money for Jean's abortion, playing the occasional gig, he receives some unexpected news and hitches a ride to Chicago. He runs into hurdle after hurdle and seldom clears a one, instead just going around them.
The movie meanders, pleasantly so. It's enough to simply take in the '60s textures the Coens present to us: Llewyn's corduroy jacket, the many beards and eyeglasses framing the faces of minor characters, scratchy low-seated lounge chairs, turtleneck sweaters and tweed, stacks of vinyl records. (The film is loosely based on folk singer Dave Van Ronk's memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street; Van Ronk's ex-wife, Terri Thal, has expressed contention with the film's accuracy in its portrayal of the '60s folk revival.)
But we can detect that there's something greater at work than just a reproduction of the era. When Llewyn comments on the song he sings at the film's opening, "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," he describes it as a quintessential folk song, "it's never new and it doesn't get old." His plight, in its way, is timeless. His story (or lack thereof) resonates with those who feel or have become stalled, for those who feel powerless to shift into a higher gear.