Don’t let the trailers fool you: “Inside Llewyn Davis” isn’t about music or the ‘60s; it is about a man whose life is in flux as he spirals downward while trying to find himself. Loosely based off the accounts of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, the film takes a look at the folk music scene of Greenwich Village in 1961 through the eyes of struggling musician Llewyn Davis. The movie follows the titular character through a week in his life.
The film opens up with Davis sitting under a spotlight in a dark bar clutching his guitar as he harrowingly belts out the classic “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” Davis might as well have been singing about himself; the song plays out like a soliloquy in some Shakespearean tragedy. Before we even get a chance to know him, we are told his entire story, and watching him onstage is awe-inspiring. He is a true musical talent. We recall this confident and commanding Davis onstage as we watch him struggle in the real world.
Lead actor Oscar Isaac transforms into Davis — an angry, hostile and spiteful man who stubbornly refuses help from those closest to him. We watch as he alienates just about everyone in his life as well as the crowd watching him perform. We, the viewers, can do nothing as we watch Davis make one mistake after another on the screen. Davis is by no means a character you can love, nor can you truly hate him; you just have to take him at face value. He is a character you can understand and with whom you can associate. This makes the film feel more like fact than fiction and creates a tether to the audience that a forgiving and honest character could never do. We see him for the unreliable narrator he is and enjoy going along for the ride.
Davis’ week starts as he wakes with a start in the bed of a friend, Mitch Gorfein (played by Ethan Phillips), while a housecat pounces playfully across his chest. Davis quickly gathers his things, only stopping long enough to find a record with his former partner, and he plays it as he leaves.
We watch on as Davis drifts through his days, slowly crossing off friends he can trust, until it is just him, alone. His oft self-defeating attitude toward his music becomes the centerpiece of the story. Davis sits atop his artistic pedestal, judging those who don’t commit 100 percent, even remarking at his sister, “What! Quit? Just exist?” He builds himself into an impenetrable character who is so guarded that no one ever sees into who he really is except when onstage. The scenes in which we see Davis perform are the only scenes in which everyone can see truly see inside Davis.
The Coen Brothers recorded each musical scene live, lending each scene a great sense of emotion and cohesion. One of the most amazing scenes involves Davis performing for Chicago manager Bud Grossman (based off Bob Dylan’s real-life manager, Albert Grossman), played by F. Murray Abraham. He starts off on another ballad, “The Death of Queen Jane.” As he sings, two cameras — one on the face of Davis and the other on Bud Grossman — slowly zoom forward. It might not sound too impressive until you consider the fact that it was completed in a single take, as the music was performed and recorded live. The music throughout the film, which was produced by T-Bone Burnett, becomes a character in its own right, lyrically driving the film forward and developing its own storyline parallel to Davis’.
The Coen Brothers’ musically driven movie is harrowing, sad, bleak, dark and tragic. It is a true masterpiece that captures the essence of the burgeoning folk music scene of the 1960s. By the time Davis’ solo version of “Fare Thee Well” plays out in the dark bar, we understand him, and we forgive him for all his harsh words and cruel acts because we see ourselves in him, lost and hungry for answers.