The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis: Folk You

A prickly musician seizes center screen in this evocation of the Greenwich Village music scene just before Bob Dylan changed everything

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Alison Rosa / CBS Films

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a good folk singer with a bad attitude. At Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Café in early 1961, he performs the traditional blues number “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” with soulful expertise, but also annoys the crowd — including one fellow in particular — by insulting another singer on the bill. Hustling for the renown he will never achieve, Llewyn treats his musical talent as a private gift that he agrees to share only at gunpoint. His folk-you demeanor alienates nearly everyone in a position to advance his career or give him a few nights’ lodging. His acquaintances and audiences, and a stray cat he tries to befriend, have to wonder if he’s worth spending time with. Who’d want to get inside Llewyn Davis?

Moviegoers face the same dilemma watching Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen’s first film since the 2010 True Grit, their biggest commercial hit. As if to atone for that Western’s ingratiating mass appeal, the brothers have created a character who’s hard to love and a bit of a chore to invest in for an hour and 45 minutes. “If it’s not new and it never gets old,” Llewyn says, “it’s a folk song.” This guy is familiar, not new, but he quickly becomes old and abrasive, stranded in internal contradictions. For a boy raised in a rough section of Queens, N.Y., Llewyn has few street smarts. Advice to folks new to the big city: When you step into an alley and a man in the darkness makes threatening remarks, don’t walk toward him.

(MORE: Lisa Schwarzbaum on the Coen brothers and Inside Llewyn Davis by subscribing to TIME)

A veteran of the Merchant Marines, Llewyn is the movie’s cranky ancient mariner spoiling everyone else’s celebration in what is otherwise an acute and affectionate portrait of the American folk-music movement in its vital infancy. In that 1961 winter, just before Bob Dylan revolutionized everything — and Peter, Paul and Mary popularized Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” — the folk scene was really two scenes. Pete Seeger and the Weavers and their more homogenized avatars the Kingston Trio filled  concert halls. Others pursued their art in tiny coffee shops, including neo-traditionalists like Irish balladeers the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem; dulcimer-strumming Kentucky lass Jean Ritchie; and, imparting a feral growl to old Anglo ballads, Brooklyn’s own Dave Van Ronk — the rough inspiration for the protagonist of this ornery, dramatically confounding, lovingly scored new film.

Llewyn recorded one album as part of the folk duo Timlin & Davis (before Timlin killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge), and then a solo LP that sold dozens of copies. With no fixed abode, he’s obliged to beg for couch space in the apartments of friends — a daunting task for Llewyn, since he’s a plebeian pain in the ass, an off-putting mixture of self-absorption and self-righteousness.

(MORE: A 65th-birthday tribute to Bob Dylan)

Llewyn’s unlucky streak extends to all those who inhabit his orbit. Sleeping over at the home of Columbia professor Mitch Gorfein (Ethan Phillips) and his wife Lillian (Robin Bartlett), Llewyn, who routinely abuses Mitch, lets their tawny cat sneak out of their locked apartment and spends much of the movie searching for the critter. You could call Llewyn the black cat in the path of a crippled bluesman (John Goodman) and a near mute actor (Garrett Hedlund) with whom he shares a car heading for Chicago. Llewyn’s best friend, Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake), gets him studio gigs, unaware that the ingrate has been sleeping with Jim’s wife Jean (Carey Mulligan). And now Jean is pregnant. “Everything you touch turns to shit,” she astutely tells Llewyn. “Like King Midas’ idiot brother.”

Last year, David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, addressed another lost musical cause of the ’60s in Not Fade Away, his story of four Jersey boys who start a blues band. That film was a major disappointment. No question that Inside Llewyn Davis is a far superior hymn to the loser ethos. Its excellent cast gives at least as much humanity to the characters as the script allows. Director of photography Bruno Delbonnel, who earned the New York Film Critics Circle’s citation for the year’s best cinematography, captures the soul-contracting frigidity of a New York City winter. Imagine the cover photo for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan — the singer huddling for warmth on a chilly Village street with his girlfriend Suze Rotolo — raised to living camera art.

(MORE: Corliss’s review of David Chase’s Not Fade Away)

Some filmmakers might have chosen to dramatize the folk-pop era by fictionalizing the early success of Peter, Paul and Mary. They appear here, in fetal form, as Jim, Jean and Troy Nelson (Stark Sands). Albert Grossman, the entrepreneur who put the trio together, shows up as Gate of Horn manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). The Coens take a perversely different route. Could it be that they dreamed up Llewyn as a subordinate character to dance mischievously around Jim and Jean, then let him commandeer the narrative by the sheer force of his sour power?

(MORE: A tribute to the late Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary)

Having put this human exasperation point at the center of the story (the other characters are mere satellites, with a few scenes each), the Coens constructed an episodic format that is as loose as, say, Jack Kerouac’s Beat novel On the Road and depends utterly on the distinctiveness of the eccentrics who people each episode. In fact, the strongest section — the road trip with Goodman and Hedlund (who played Dean Moriarty in last year’s On the Road movie) — is also the least essential to Llewyn’s own tale. For ostensible continuity, the brothers summon that darn cat to materialize or vanish at intervals. This is a device unworthy of the brothers’ usual ingenuity, though it does link Inside Llewyn Davis to another 1961 pop-cultural artifact: the film of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in which the true soul mate of Holly Golightly is a cat named Cat.

Llewyn is even something of a misfit in the Coen universe, where decent misfortunates — John Turturro’s harried screenwriter in Barton Fink, the betrayed husband played by Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn’t There, Michael Stuhlbarg as the hapless professor in A Serious Man — are easy marks for those with sharper instincts. Not Llewyn. He is more predator than victim; his angry flailing leaves collateral bruises on sympathetic bystanders. He’s a schlemiel without a clue, and no cause but himself.

(MORE: TIME reviews of Barton FinkThe Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man)

But he does find kin among the central characters of other recent indie movies whose stubbornness complements their lack of basic human skills. Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine is one such vexing creature, unaware of or uncaring about the impact her Manhattan snobbery has on the San Francisco working class. Another is Woody Grant, the Montana geezer played by Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska; he trumps his truculence with a vast ignorance of the rules of sweepstakes prizes. (Two words — Ed McMahon — would have wizened Woody up and ended the film.) Like Blanchett and Dern, Isaac has a strong shot at an Oscar nomination. We’ll see if Academy members embrace three characters they would flee from in real life.

(MORE: Corliss’s reviews of Blue Jasmine and Nebraska)

Old folkies will recognize variations on denizens of the early-’60s coffeehouse milieu, including the Clancys and Ritchie, whom Llewyn dismisses as “four micks and Grandma Moses”; the Jewish faux-cowboy Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (Adam Driver, from Girls); and singer-songwriter Tom Paxton (with Sands, now starring in Broadway’s Kinky Boots, performing Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind”). Arlen Gamble (Michael Rosner), the elderly mensch who owns the label that produced Llewyn’s solo album, is clearly Folkways Records’ Moe Asch. Roland Turner, the jazzman played by Goodman, is an amalgam of New Orleans pianist Dr. John (a.k.a. Mac Rebennack) and blues singer and pop-songwriter supreme Doc Pomus.

(MORE: An appreciation of Atlantic Records songwriter Doc Pomus)

Except for Hedy West’s folkish “500 Miles” and the novelty tune “Please Mr. Kennedy (Don’t Shoot Me Into Outer Space),” all the songs here are traditional. As Joel Coen says in the press notes, “If you trace it back far enough, it’s all Americana, the same kind of music, the same family tree, the same species of song we used in O Brother, Where Art Thou?” That larkish comedy-musical, based on Homer’s Odyssey and set in the 1930s South, leaves its imprint all over Inside Llewyn Davis, not least in the name of one important character: Ulysses.

(MORE: Josh Tyrangiel on the music of O Brother, Where Art Thou?)

T-Bone Burnett, the maestro of O Brother (and an Oscar winner for the Jeff Bridges film Crazy Heart), supervised the music. Sung live by the actors, it resonates with lyrical verve. The cover of “500 Miles” by Mulligan, Timberlake and Sands has a sonorous sweetness beyond the Peter, Paul and Mary version. And as nagging as Llewyn can be offstage, he too comes to life when he sings: the lustrous, aching “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” three times, the Van Ronk favorites “Green Green Rocky Road” and “Cocaine Blues” and, finest of all, his cover of a song popularized by Joan Baez, “The Death of Queen Jane” — a beautiful rendition that, you might think, would get Llewyn booked into any night spot he auditioned for. In the movie’s strongest scene, Llewyn sings Ewan MacColl’s “Shoals of Herring” for his catatonic father. During these numbers, Isaac (born in Guatemala and raised in Miami) doesn’t discard Llewyn’s prickly personality; he integrates it into the vocal performance. This is acting-singing of the highest caliber.

(MORE: Mike Madden’s review of the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack album)

The CD, which was released three weeks ago, is a trove of sonic pleasure; it’s not new music and it never gets old. A single listen should certify the suspicion that Inside Llewyn Davis is more deserving of a Grammy than an Oscar. It’s a middling portrait but a great album.