The year is 1961 in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, and the title character is a struggling New York City folk singer caught in one of life’s loops. The movie begins where it will end, with Davis onstage at the Gaslight, one of the West Village venues for a musical movement that, in the early ’60s, was caught in a loop of its own, believing it was the start of something rather than the finish. Before getting his butt kicked in a back alley by a mysterious stranger, Davis sings the song of a man condemned—if only in his miserable mind—to be hanged; we assume Davis must be a victim before we realize, over the next 100 minutes, he’s a fuckup. Homeless and broke and constantly relying on the kindness of strangers or near strangers or the newly estranged, the suddenly solo singer was once half of a duo whose fortunes were on the rise. Now haunted by the loss of his partner to suicide and raw to the doubts that go with being on his own, Davis believes he’s too good for the advice of people who try to give him some, and too good for the world, of which every setback seems to offer only further proof.
Davis is another of the self-saboteurs who have perennially fascinated the Coens over more than a quarter of a century of filmmaking. Confusing solipsism for principles and holding a vaguely romantic view of his disarray, Davis could be a distant nephew of the playwright-seduced-by-Hollywood Barton Fink a generation earlier, and an uncle several times removed of stoner-rebel Jeff Lebowski a generation later, both in Coen pictures that also bear their names. Inside Llewyn Davis is based in part on The Mayor of MacDougal Street, the memoir of blues singer Dave Van Ronk, a longtime fixture of the Village folk scene. As played by Oscar Isaac, Davis shares Van Ronk’s storied indignation and some biographical details but not the interpretive growl or social garrulousness; Isaac’s charisma is more brooding and, in the manner of many performers, he only becomes personable, even charming, when he has an audience. Nor does Davis have the survivor’s instincts—and the knack for what we now call personal branding—of a new kid just in from the Midwest with the name of Zimmerman (already shed for the flashier moniker of a Welsh poet) who’s only in the movie for a fleeting moment but hovers in the background.
By the 1960s, with the election of a young new president and a rising conversation about social conflicts, American folk music had reason to trust in its relevance. More of its artists were gaining attention, and, to its credit, folk passionately accepted the job of expressing national anguish when no one else was willing to. But if the America of 1961 was less a new country than an old one still catching up with itself, that was reflected as well by an insular and occasionally elitist musical form that had little use for the contemporary; folksingers rejected the shallow teen dramas of the then-current pop even as they performed handed-down ballads of teen drama from a century or two before.
Supposing itself to be at the outset of what would become the pop ’60s, in fact the Village folk scene was a last gasp of the Beat ’50s, not unlike the bebop coming out of jazz clubs like the Vanguard. Meaning to be timeless, folk was outside of time: “If it was never new, and it never gets old, it’s a folk song,” Davis cracks to the Gaslight crowd that’s always conspicuously faceless, lost in the shadows of its reverence, maybe because—notwithstanding the formidable presences of Van Ronk and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and more often exemplified by the pallid likes of some of folk’s biggest stars including Eric Andersen, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, and Peter, Paul and Mary—folk was often as devoid of personality as the audience listening. The music aspired to be the voice of Everyone rather than the voice of Someone, so when the young Bob Dylan finally does show up in the Coens’ film, however briefly, we take notice: He sounds very much like someone, and not like anyone else. More than Dylan or Van Ronk, Davis resembles the protest-troubadour Phil Ochs or, to be precise, the ghost that the doomed Ochs doesn’t yet know he’s given up.
The Texan Ochs called himself a “topical” singer and was emblematic of both folk’s commitment and its limits. Long on the sincerity of songs that challenged war and racism, he was shorter on the hallucinatory vision by which Dylan rendered classic complaints newly apocalyptic; Ochs might have written “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the Dylan song that first drew public attention to the music, but not “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” the song in Dylan’s oeuvre that crucially anticipated a future bigger than folk had the imagination for. Ochs made no secret of wanting to cross Elvis Presley with Che Guevara and then never got over it when Dylan did just that, with Baudelaire tossed in for good measure. A decade and a half later, after trying on several different incarnations, he hanged himself, a particularly aggressive form of suicide that fulfilled the prophecy of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” which Davis sings as the movie opens. For the rest of the film, as he hops from couch to couch for a night’s sleep when he isn’t insulting his hosts or losing their pets or hitting up his sister for money or getting other men’s girlfriends pregnant, Davis narrows various options out of his looping existence to last resorts: Short of killing himself, he would ship out to sea if he could manage even that. He’s folk’s ambassador to oblivion, realizing before his music does that he’s going nowhere.
On the basis of their initial films, it’s not hard to imagine that the younger, snottier Coen brothers thought John Belushi had a point when, in 1978’s Animal House, he seized the guitar of that delicate young folksinger serenading the girls and smashed it against the staircase. The condescension of the Coens’ previous pictures could put you off even when their filmmaking craft was impressive, every scene so well made that the narrative pull was irresistible. For about a decade now, however, they’ve been outgrowing smug superiority as a modus operandi, and they’ve always been enamored of American musical tradition sometimes to the point of non sequitur: The neo-noir The Big Lebowski opens with a 1934 song by the Sons of the Pioneers, and the bluegrass soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? may have been the only thing about that movie the Coens took seriously.
Now the brothers have moved into a phase of their work where a mood of elegy has crept up on them. Unlike Lebowski and Barton Fink, Inside Llewyn Davis is played straight with barely a satiric impulse; defiantly shorn of the bravura set pieces that have marked Coen films, it’s stylistically subdued and cedes the screen to Isaac, Carey Mulligan as another singer and lover, and John Goodman, who provides the movie’s few larger-than-life moments as a jazzman crossing the country in a race with his addictions. As with the recent No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man, and True Grit, Llewyn Davis is infused with melancholy, signs of which, in retrospect, are now more evident in Coen movies going as far back as Miller’s Crossing more than two decades ago. Including Fargo, Inside Llewyn Davis is the most gorgeously wintry (in all senses of the word) movie the Coens have made. In contrast with Brother’s livelier bluegrass, the soundtrack of folk standards such as “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” and “The Last Thing on My Mind” is wistful when it isn’t yearning or mournful. That the lament of Inside Llewyn Davis parallels other examinations like Mad Men of the same American history on the verge of disruption may be another indication of how acutely the Coens sometimes gauge the zeitgeist.
This melancholy is accompanied by a general compassion that was never associated with the Coens. In all his gloom Davis embodies what appears to be a genuine affection that the writer-directors have for folk, both its music and scene, perhaps because the brothers know that a murder in Dallas and an avaricious culture led by Europeanized rhythm and blues await. By the count of years, Davis is still at the other end of life from where Jeff Bridges’s grizzled marshal Rooster Cogburn is in the Coens’ last feature, True Grit. But they’re both running out the string of their dreams to sad conclusions, with Cogburn simply having had more time to find some grace in it, and having had the chance to find, by virtue of being older, more of the wherewithal to go out on his own terms. Davis’s dream, which isn’t to be confused with his motives, remains innocent and may be the only thing about him that does. Like Barton Fink, he wants to make something beautiful even as in every other way he’s a pain in the ass, even as in every other way he’s so possessed by the desire to make beauty that he can’t bring himself to compromise on his interactions with other people.
It’s one thing to become an anachronism in your winter—as a folk song might have it—and another to still be in your spring when you realize you’re obsolete. As Llewyn Davis is getting his butt kicked in the alley, a young rock-and-pop combo has just returned home from Germany to their seaport town in England where they’re now sensations; the band’s lead guitarist is still just 17, which is to say the Beatles are laying claim to a future that already leaves in the past not only brooding folk singers with too much integrity but, with them, their unyielding music. As Davis collapses in the alley, folk has one more surge of popularity left (though not for him), led by the Kingston Trio and the New Christy Minstrels for whom purists like Van Ronk have no use. Dylan will rewrite the genre’s traditions and, for a year or two, make it the most pertinent sound on the radio.
But Dylan knows that the authenticity folk fetishizes is the enemy of audacity. Hearing the Beatles on the radio (who have been listening to him in return), he doesn’t look back—at Llewyn Davis or anyone else. At the end of Inside Llewyn Davis, on his way out the Gaslight’s back door, at the first sound of Dylan singing his set from the stage, Davis shoots the new young singer a look and shudders, almost imperceptibly, wondering what just blew in on a cold wind from Hibbing, Minnesota, barely 200 miles from where the Coens were born.