By Muhammad Muzammal
"Hang me, oh hang me" are the first words of Ethan and Joel Coens' new film, "Inside Llewyn Davis." Appearing with a rough beard and muddled look, the titular character (a brilliant Oscar Issac) sings this verse with his soft, gentle voice. After performing at the Gaslight Cafe, a real club from 1960s New York, Davis is approached by a man who proceeds to savagely beat him and leave him in the streets. Davis the vagabond will now go to where he is temporarily staying and sleep the night, only to repeat a similar, horrid cycle of unfortunate events the next day.
This is the basic, narrative structure for “Inside Llewyn Davis,” as it moves along its story by throwing mishaps at its main character. The Coens have directed films with similar formats before ("Barton Fink," "A Serious Man"), but "Inside Lleywn Davis" is a new high for them. The duo has masterfully told an utterly depressing yet profoundly ironic story. They’ve recreated the time period mixing it with their own vision, and directed a sincere, heartfelt film.
The movie is essentially an overview of the life of a folk singer in 1960s America when the country was on the verge of total artistic expression and the conservative ideals of President Eisenhower had prominently lessened.
The singer of our story, Davis, is a stubborn yet empathic main character. Because he hasn't "made it" as a solo act in the music industry, Davis is left with a guitar, his clothes and an adorable lost kitten as his only companion.
He takes any opportunity he can to book a gig, all the while being homeless. Crashing on a different friend’s couch every night, Davis has no place to rest.
Throughout the movie, Davis finds out painful truths. He impregnates a friend’s girlfriend, learns he has a child he never knew existed, struggles with his lack of a career, and is constantly reminded of the suicide of his old music partner. Yet, with all this to think of, he spends much of the film searching for a friend’s missing cat, almost as if finding the animal will bring him a sense of relief and joy.
But it doesn't. There's a truthful scene near the end of the film where Davis, who has traveled all the way from New York to Chicago by car, attends an audition for a record producer, Bud Grossman (a cool F. Murray Abraham). As Davis tenderly croons "The Queen of Mary," it looks like Grossman may advance his career. Yet, after a painful pause following the song, Grossman obliterates the artist's spirit by telling him he’s not a front man.
This is the brilliance of the film. It is told with such depth and emotion that it feels painfully real. Although the middle passage becomes dreamlike, the film ends and closes with the same, realistic scene, symbolizing a crucial aspect of the film.
There is no plot to the movie because there is no plot to Llewyn's life. He is a character locked in a never-ending fantasy where he believes he can still make it as a folk singer.
As Grossman tells him, "I don't see any money," Davis invests in his own emotional turmoil. In an attempt to criticize the entertainment industry, I think the Coens use Davis' dark and grim songs to provide reasons for his failure as a singer. To the audience viewer, he is a tortured artist, but to the industry and society in the film (and the real world), Davis is a depressing, miserable man.
The movie tells us that hard work doesn't always pay off. Davis is not trying to make it big, he's simply trying to make it and even then, the path is arduous and long.
Yet, I left the film in a surprisingly joyous mood. One of the best things I realized was that no matter how rotten or damaged human beings can be, we still have the unique and graceful ability to make sublime pieces of art. Just look at the harsh life of Davis and how well he sings. It’s the film’s most beautiful, human twist.
The movie is also mythical as Davis goes on a journey only to come back home a different, wiser man.
The character says the following of folk songs: "If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it's a folk song."
The same can be said of a folk tale, and in constructing a timeless story about the struggle to follow one's dreams; I think the Coen brothers have just made a great folk tale.