When Oscar season rolls around, it’s always interesting to note which films get snubbed. In 1999, while Sam Mendes’ American Beauty raked in accolades from the Academy, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia didn’t even snag a Best Picture nomination, in spite of immense success among critics. Magnolia centers on the boiling sense of guilt, shame, and remorse over the moral lapses of a group of people in some way connected to Southern California’s entertainment industry.
Similarly, Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from the Coen brothers, has earned rave reviews from critics with its bleak depiction of the Greenwich Village scene of the 1960s. It looks with a note of cynicism at the artistic subculture that led to the Sixties countercultural movements. It is notably absent from the Best Picture category for the Oscars this year.
The film spans roughly a week in the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a former merchant marine turned struggling folk singer living in Greenwich Village in 1961. Haunted by the suicide of his former singing partner, his latest solo record, Inside Llewyn Davis, is flopping and his nightly performances at the infamous Gaslight Café are failing to sustain him both artistically and financially. He sleeps on the couches of friends and acquaintances, and generally drifts from one gig to the next. He is unmotivated by his desire for artistic success and is tossed along by events beyond his control. Getting behind a character as deadbeat and uncharismatic as the protagonist is perhaps the biggest challenge in the movie.
The film opens with Llewyn getting beaten up in an alley, behind the café where he has just performed, by an ominous figure in a suit. The man seems to be upset about comments Llewyn made during a performance the night before. Falling to the ground, Llewyn puts up no fight, and from the start we have a glimpse of what we are to expect out of the character. The film then jumps to an undisclosed point. Llewyn awakens in the home of some older acquaintances, the Gorfeins, and inadvertently allows their tabby cat to slip past him as he leaves. The door locks behind him and he finds himself saddled with the animal as he meanders around the west side of lower Manhattan. This opening part of the film involves Llewyn trying to return the poor creature back to its owners while simultaneously looking for a new place to stay.
Llewyn ends up staying with Jean and Jim Berkey (Carrie Mulligan and Justin Timberlake), two friends and fellow performers at the Gaslight. Jean informs him that she is pregnant and demands Llewyn pay for an abortion on the belief that the child may be his and not Jim’s. Desperate for the cash, he records a song along with Jim and a man named Al Cody (Adam Diver) under the name the “John Glenn Singers.” Llewyn takes the quick cash and walks, rather than signing on for the royalties.
His financial troubles eventually put him on the road to Chicago, to chase down a music producer named Bud Grossman who had been sent a copy of his record. He rides along with Roland Turner, a narcoleptic, Santeria-practicing jazz performer (John Goodman), and a beat poet named Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). Upon arriving in Chicago, Llewyn learns his record was never received and Grossman, unimpressed by an impromptu performance, rejects Llewyn.
Dejected and broke, he hitches a ride back to New York City to try and get his old job back as a merchant marine. Due to the union bureaucracy and the loss of his official paperwork, he’s unable to secure a spot on a ship. His wayfaring journey ends him back where he started: in the dim room at the Gaslight. We discover that the first scene of the film is actually the last scene in the story, as Llewyn wraps up his performance and the manager tells him “a friend” awaits him in the back alley.
The film is, in a sense, an unraveling of the popular romantic narrative of the 1960s. The free-spirited bohemian culture depicted is not an idealized expression of rebellion against a repressive society. The folk music is the melancholy song of dislocated Americans. The sexual liberation shown here is hardly liberating, but is rather a source of disillusionment. At one point, the manager of the Gaslight remarks how most of the patrons frequent the café simply because they sexually desire the performers. The manager himself admits to sleeping with the female performers before allowing them to sing. Thus the spirit of the age is rung in by little more than exploitation and base human impulse.
Llewyn’s artistic endeavors are not portrayed as superior to the wants and desires of the average American, personified in the characters of his sister, who is a mother, and the Gorfeins, a happily married couple who frequently take him in when he is in need. It is even revealed that a past indiscretion resulted in the same predicament as the affair with Jean except, Llewyn learns, that woman chose at the last moment not to have the abortion and left Greenwich to raise the child in Akron, Ohio. We cannot help but feel Llewyn’s sense of loss as he watches with uncertain longing while the turn-off to Akron passes by during his drive back to New York.
Given all of this, it is easy to see why the Academy might overlook Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s an unglamorous depiction of an artistic movement and the individuals involved; if there is any glimmer of hope for Llewyn Davis it isn’t in the counterculture of the Sixties folk scene. Of this we can be certain. As Llewyn staggers into the alley at the end of the film, the man who takes the stage after him is none other than a young Bob Dylan. This brief glimpse of the soon-to-be icon is a clear sign of the coming revolution in the music industry and the tumultuous social upheavals of the 1960s. But in the world of the Coen brothers, history seems to be moved along by indifferent and uncontrollable forces. As with No Country For Old Men, the only hope is buried somewhere in a final scene lathered in ambiguity, as Llewyn Davis is drawn away from the history being made inside the Gaslight, from himself, and from the folk scene he no longer identifies with, outside into an alleyway, for the final encounter of the film.