I’ve always loved the movies of the Coen brothers, ever since watching Raising Arizona as a kid and laughing my ass off seeing a young Nick Cage robbing a supermarket with a shotgun and pantyhose on his head. One of their best offerings of the past few years, to me, was the understated Inside Llewyn Davis.
The Coen’s have always had their own darkly eccentric sense of humor that they inject into their movies and Davis is no exception. Not an blood-soaked blockbuster on par with No Country For Old Men, Llewyn Davis simply follows a down and out folk singer in New York’s Greenwich Village during the early 1960s.
My punk musician little sister said she found this movie extremely painful, as it mirrored large parts of her own life in her twenties: crashing on couches, zero money and little if any physical comfort. That lifestyle will make anyone tired after a decade or so, but I’m proud of her for giving it the ol’ college try.
Much like Mad Men, the world of Davis explores this rather uncovered transitional period between the 50’s and the heady late 60’s that always stands out in our collective consciousness as a high water mark of youth counterculture. Instead we see a pre-Bob Dylan Greenwich Village populated by quiet, acoustic songwriters, affordable rent and very little hard drug use and political rebellion.
This is a world of smoky basement cafe’s, corduroy jackets and sentimental folk music- as opposed to loud electric guitars, student riots and psychedelic acid trips. But this was a Bohemia that indeed existed in a certain place and time for its denizens, and the Coen Bros do a fantastic job of bringing this lost world of old New York back to life through authentic location shooting around the 5 boroughs. Many of the haunting musical performances drive the mood, as well as giving us a nostalgic window into a brief, but highly influential underground music scene.
The central fictional character, Llewyn Davis, was modeled on the obscure, real life musician, Dave Van Ronk- the so called “Mayor of MacDougal Street “- as well as most of the music being drawn from Ronk’s repertoire. On a personal level, Ronk was purportedly not unlike his counterpart in the movie, as well as being an early mentor to a young Bob Dylan.
We learn early on that Davis is a supremely talented, yet self-sabotaging musician. A cliched starving artist type living literally day-to-day and hand to mouth. He has no apartment of his own, and merely spends his days crashing on friend’s, patron’s and girlfriend’s sofas (room and board is often exchanged for musical performances). Money seems to be irrelevant for him, just as much as mainstream, commercial success eludes his grasp.
Davis routinely insults and criticizes other musicians on stage who he deems as “inauthentic”, as well as scorning colleagues who sell out for more commercial ventures. He’s a masterful and soulful songwriter, but even at his best comes across as flakey, selfish, and uncompromising. His inability to be flexible, or accept an offer of work that he feels is beneath him, inevitably ends in disappointment for Davis.
Even when a renowned music promoter hears his audition and offers Davis a spot in a trio act going on tour, Davis refuses and makes his way back home jacketless through the cold Eastern winter. It seems everything Davis touches has the reverse Midas Effect, his cantankerous mood swings getting the better of him after every setback, while those around him seem to get lucky with love and musical success.
When he visits his sister to ask for some money, something he’s always without, Davis’s “square” suburban dwelling sibling refuses. She asks him to take his box of things she’s been storing for him, but Davis tells her to simply trash it- so little is he interested in permanence and material things.
On the love side of things, his ex-girlfriend is furious with him for getting her pregnant, and he find out later on that she’s not the first lady he’s gotten knocked up and whom had to foot the bill for an abortion.
At the end of the film, Davis gets the crap kicked out him by the husband of a woman whose performance he drunkenly mocked at a folk club the night before. Ultimately, the source of Llewyn Davis’s misfortune is obvious to everyone but himself. Or maybe he does realize it, but prefers to simply wallow in the gutter as penance for his sins- the cliched, bitter and unappreciated authentic artist till the end…