Directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Songs of farewell and songs of perdition, songs of rambling and songs of surrender. Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis is set in New York in the winter of 1961, the peak of the folk revival that bloomed in the basket houses of Greenwich Village, and the songs that river through this movie are by and large songs drawn from collective memory, songs remembered and revived for their haunting individual images yet most often credited to no one in particular. “If it was never new and never gets old then it’s a folk song,” our titular protagonist (Oscar Isaac) flatly declares after singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” to a small but transfixed audience at the Gaslight. From the title on down, “Hang Me” is a song that would sound like resignation were it not for the simple fact of its being sung—in this case with spectral grace.
“Hang Me” is, in a sense, the movie in miniature: talented but no genius, a bold interpreter but not a songwriter, Llewyn struggles to make a name for himself but is beset by obstacles throughout this tale marked by loneliness, strange twists of fate, acid absurdist wit and a pitch-perfect sense of time and place. Llewyn possesses genuine artistic integrity, but he does not ingratiate himself. He’s not remarkably handsome or charismatic. Actually, he’s kind of an asshole, or in any case tends to say the wrong thing. He also has a knack for impregnating women he probably shouldn’t have slept with to begin with. He carries a deep psychic wound—stemming from the loss of his musical partner—but won’t give others the benefit of discussing it, much less exploit it for the sake of honing a then-marketable lonesome traveller persona. (The dissonance between Llewyn the performer and Llewyn the ordinary ornery fuck-up is one of this story’s most compelling elements.) In short, he makes no effort to let his friends, colleagues or listeners “inside.” He doesn’t “connect” with audiences the way that the seemingly wholesome duo Jim & Judy (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) or the exceedingly earnest Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) do. What Llewyn gains in authenticity he loses in accessibility.
So this is decidedly not a chronicle of musical success; Llewyn is barely successful at scoring a couch to crash on, a ride or a meal. He can’t even take care of a benefactor’s cat—and let me add that Inside Llewyn Davis features what must be the most impressive cat performance(s) in the history of cinema. Llewyn falls into a gig playing backup on a potentially lucrative novelty tune (featuring vocals by a brilliantly ridiculous Adam Driver) but signs himself out of royalties. At one point Llewyn joins in on an ill-fated road trip to the Midwest—maybe things will be better in Chicago—accompanied by a Santería-practicing junky jazzman (John Goodman, with an excellent haircut) and a taciturn valet named Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund, hilariously revising and reversing his garrulous Dean Moriarty from On The Road). Later he’ll consider abandoning music and returning to the merchant marine, but even giving up art for commerce proves problematic.
Initially inspired by the life of the late folkie Dave Van Ronk, Inside Llewyn Davis follows one of these figures for whom fame and fortune will always remain elusive—which is a whole other kind of mystique: the romance of the under-recognized. Riddled with dead ends and fraught affairs, impromptu travels and roads not taken, unsupportive agents and the world’s narrowest hallways, Llewyn’s shaggy odyssey is closer to the stuff of folk songs than those of other singers famous for singing folk songs. If I haven’t made this clear yet, the movie is beautifully acted, photographed and edited; it’s poetic, funny, sad and fascinating; it’s a mature, surprisingly soulful work from these forever fraternal filmmakers, lifelong collaborators who can surely relate to the idea of not knowing how to go on as an artist without your creative partner by your side.
Oscar Isaac on Inside Llewyn Davis
Oscar Isaac was born in Guatemala and raised in Florida. Aside from his acting career, he’s also played music since he was a kid, slipping from one genre to another, driven by innate curiosity. He’s already amassed numerous credits but his role as the eponymous struggling folk singer in Inside Llewyn Davis marks a major breakthrough, both in terms of creative challenges and visibility. Isaac’s had a busy year promoting the film since its Cannes première, but he managed to spare some time to speak to Vue via phone last week.
Vue weekly: Did the folk revival of the early ’60s hold any special meaning for you?
Oscar Isaac: I grew up listening to Dylan, but I wasn’t terribly aware of the pre-Dylan folk scene. The repertoire was unknown to me, but since getting involved in this project I’ve become hugely affected by it.
VW: Dave Van Ronk was a key inspiration for Inside Llewyn Davis, but I don’t know whether his life or music was something you turned to when preparing.
OI: When you’re starting out you grab onto anything that might help, so I did spend a lot of time with his legacy. I found everything he recorded and really latched onto his style of playing.
VW: Something I find fascinating about the film is the dissonance between Llewyn Davis the bewitching performer and Llewyn Davis the guy just trying to find a decent winter coat. Did you sense that dissonance while singing those songs? Did it require you to go to a different place than the one you inhabit in the rest of the film?
OI: Yeah. It’s incredibly intimate—just one dude and a guitar in front of people, playing these songs. He’s generally disconnected, an island unto himself, so when he plays these songs they become windows into his soul. It was very important that these musical performances were not expressive so much as revealing. The key to doing that was to play as though I was just playing for myself, like I was just sitting on my couch, alone. Don’t put anything on them. Don’t try to squeeze anything out.
VW: We really come to know Llewyn in some substantial way, yet the character so often avoids sharing anything, even when confronted with what we gradually learn was a recent and devastating loss.
OI: When you’re going through hardship you do everything to avoid it. He’s no different. If you think of this as a story of grief you can kind of track the stages. You hear him play this record from his past in solitude, then he plays the same song at the midpoint and it makes him angry, then he plays it again at the end as a dirge. There’s a process in there of letting go.
VW: There’s also something about a guy channelling grief through songs that aren’t his. They can engage his emotions without being his own words, without sounding like overt confessions.
OI: The preservationist in him looks to the past for songs that seem relevant in the now. They speak to his personal experience but also to something bigger, something in the air.
VW: A continual source of dark humour in the film is Llewyn’s inability to move his career forward. You’ve obviously had more luck in that department, but I wonder if you can relate to his frustrations.
OI: Definitely. I constantly ask myself why I’m doing what I’m doing. The reason is usually to get back to initial impulse that made me want to do it in the first place, that search for creative joy. But you get old and further along and that search slaps up against the ordinary bullshit of existence. That’s when you can lose your way. There’s also the frustration of having something to express but not having the platform to express it through. No one’s willing to listen. It takes perseverance. But, if you consider everything that happens to him, that’s one thing that Llewyn is arguably not lacking.