For every Bob Dylan, there are a 1,000 Llewyn Davises — hopeful young men whose voices crack in all the right places, but reach in all the wrong directions. Self-centered, hapless, and just stubborn enough not to get a real job, the down-on-his-luck folkie wanders the streets of New York City circa 1961. His dream, chronicled in Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis, is a lonely alley cat forever darting away from him. Davis, too, is fearful and twitching, with quick, feline movements. This lonely castaway has jumped ship on the idea of conventional, mid-century masculinity and washed ashore in Greenwich Village, acoustic guitar in tow.
Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, places his faith in himself rather than in the idea of American progress. Like his namesakes, the Llewelyn Davies boys, who served as the real-life inspiration for J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, Davis could care less about growing up. “The future? You mean like flying cars? Hotels on the moon? Tang?” His voice oozes sarcasm. The future is a cruel joke. His erstwhile musical partner has recently committed suicide by throwing himself off the George Washington Bridge. At this point, Davis saves what hope he has left for his singing.
In the pre-Revolutionary 1960’s, Davis’ cynicism marks him as strangely contemporary — a figure of millennial malaise. While the film’s evocation of the old Greenwich Village, its sepia-toned shadows, its palate of greens, browns, and greys, its cigar stores and antique stores and dark coffeehouses, its Washington Square Park mysteriously devoid of NYU students, all conjure a stunning sense of the real past, Davis himself lives equally in the present. As if wise to the fate of the baby boomers, he regards the intersection of culture and capitalism with suspicion. He explains, pedantically, to his on-again-off-again-paramour, played by Carey Mulligan and also an aspiring folksinger, that trying to use music to “blueprint a figure, move to the suburbs… have kids” is “a little careerist… a little sad.” But meanwhile, he’s wondering if he can crash on her couch — you know, just for a little while. Fans of the show Girls may recognize Davis as a hotter, artsier version of Ray, the mooch.
Then again, for this generation of men, there really wasn’t much of a choice when it came to what you wanted to do with your life. It was kill or be killed, fight or be beaten down, “Put the rifle on my shoulder and a dagger in my hand,” or “Put the rope around my neck,” to quote a folk song (listed on the soundtrack as “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”) Davis is fond of singing. In Davis’ young nephew’s bedroom, there are dark shadows, baseball player wallpaper, and toy soldiers standing guard ominously over the bed; for Davis, the road not taken is suggested by the figure of his father, a well-respected war hero, now just as sessile and senile as everyone else in the retirement home. When the fresh-faced, clean-cut folkie Jim, played by Justin Timberlake, rhymes “I don’t need to be a hero,” and “Are you reading me loud and clear-oh?” the comic absurdity of Jim’s new hit song is uncannily heightened by its ominous chorus: “Please, Mr. Kennedy/Please don’t shoot me into outer space.”
The film is circular, beginning and ending at the same moment, and, like most people in the business, Llewyn Davis doesn’t really get anywhere with all his talent and hard work. He’s talented and expressive but doesn’t have much to say. He’s good, but not good enough. He gets as far as Chicago, where, clenching his guitar tight as he struggles against the cold wind, he finagles a meeting with the famed producer/manager Bud Grossman. Grossman, a diabolical figure with a Faustian beard and eyebrows like inverted V’s, is unmoved by Davis’ stirring interpretation of an old English folk song (“The Death of Queen Jane”) about a queen who is denied an abortion and dies in childbirth: “I don’t see a lot of money in it,” Grossman explains. When faced with the harsh economic realities of the music business, even Davis has to admit he’s unqualified for the job. He is no cowboy, no astronaut, no Elvis, no ballsy American hero.
“Been all around this world,” he sings (again from “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”) in the first minute of the movie, and at the last, but they’re someone else’s words, not his. This is the nature of the genre, and even Davis knows it: “You probably heard this one before. It was never new, and it never gets old, and it’s a folk song.” What is moving, in Llewyn Davis’ story, is its familiarity. His story serves as a dramatic counterpoint to certain beliefs about America that young Americans do not trust anymore: it is, and has always been, a myth that hard work and talent get a person ahead, but Llewyn Davis has to learn firsthand that he’s been fed a bunch of lies. In this way, he’s an excellent role model for millennials: a guy with talent and an independent spirit, broke but not yet broken, cynical as all hell but still doing what he loves anyway. Fate seems to love nothing more than to kick him when he’s down, and yet, he somehow gets up and keeps on going. Believe it or not, the art of failure is actually harder to master than it looks because you really have to keep on trying in order to fail consistently.
It must be the music that helps him pick himself up off the ground and, with a mouth full of blood, laugh at everything, because, if Davis doesn’t exactly “mature” over the course of the movie, his voice sure does. As he suffers through life’s indignities, the line in his brow deepens from a wrinkle the size of a high-E string to a furrow you could plant a tree in, Davis’ voice comes to express the “naked pain” of the characters in the sad, old songs he loves most. In “Fare Thee Well,” he advances, throat clenched with an Oberstian stridence. Then, just as quickly, he retreats, with an “oh honey,” soft and patient, almost wise. Davis may not be much of a lover, but he sure does learn how to sing about love. Lost in the lonely place that music takes him, his face crinkles up as he sings about wishing to have wings that could carry him someplace better. He has such wings already, even if he doesn’t know it. Folk songs are timeless. Their lack of individuality renders them universal. A folk song, like death, does not care who or what you are. It cares about exactly two things: love and death, and the price of the first is always the second. It is always the same old story.