Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan star in a scene from the movie "Inside Llewyn Davis." (CNS photo/CBS FIlms)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
. 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.