The album artwork for 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was nothing if not iconic. The image of a young Dylan with then-girlfriend Suze Rotolo clinging to his side, walking down a snow-covered street in New York’s Greenwich Village embodied the early ’60s folk movement like no other. It’s also where Inside Llewyn Davis makes its music.
There are several shots in Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest that (intentionally) offer a similar imagery, only with one very significant difference: Its protagonist, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, Drive), is a lone wolf in the truest sense — aloof, misunderstood and tragically unsuccessful in his personal and professional endeavors.
Set in 1961, the film opens in a dimly lit, smoke-filled Gaslight Cafe as Llewyn sings a striking rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” — a song by Dave Van Ronk, on whom his character is loosely based. Its stark lyrics capture the essence of his character: a traveling troubadour with a troubled past haunted by the absence of a clearly defined legacy.
Llewyn has no home but couch surfs with acquaintances, relying on the good will of others as a result of his stagnating career. Chief among them is Jean (Carey Mulligan, The Great Gatsby) who begrudges Llewyn though she is pregnant with his child. She, too, is a folk singer, teaming up with her current love interest, Jim (Justin Timberlake, Friends with Benefits); but she owns a decidedly more cautionary life perspective, urging Llewyn to adopt something similar.
Instead, Llewyn embarks on a precipitous journey to Chicago, where he intends to hand-deliver his solo record to producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham, Dead Man Down). With a cat he accidentally acquired from the Gorfeins — an older couple who occasionally provide him with room and board — Llewyn hitches a ride with jazz musicians Johnny Five (Garret Hudland, TRON: Legacy) and Roland Turner (John Goodman, Argo). In this tense but often humorous road trip, it is revealed that Llewyn’s former bandmate, Mike, committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, a crucial element in defining Davis’ past and, thus, his character.
As its title implies, Inside Llewyn Davis is, above all, a character study — a musing on the burdens of dedication to a craft and the internal demons that come along with it. Isaac gives a stellar performance, not just from a musical perspective (the guy can really sing) but in his portrayal of a character who communicates with and elicits sympathy from the audience better than he can anyone in the film.
The Coens, meanwhile, explore his detached individualism with the superior depth, bravado and eccentricity that we’ve come to expect from the duo. Both the soundtrack — curated by folk musician T-Bone Burnett — and cinematography play an integral role in establishing tone: cold and damp, with a persistent darkness looming over it. It’s easily their most melancholy work to date, but it’s also profoundly engaging.
You don’t have to be a fan of folk music to appreciate Inside Llewyn Davis, as its focus is less on songs than the vessel that is delivering them. Rather, in a movement that was defined by outwardly political subject matter, the Coens delve deep inside the mind of a societal pariah who, unlike Dylan, wages his war from the inside.