“Hang me, oh, hang me,” sings Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) as the movie opens. He’d be better off if someone did. This is Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), a place no one wants to be for long, least of all Llewyn himself, a talented but aimless folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village, who doesn’t make nearly as much good music as he does his own bad luck, with which he is overly blessed. He is prickly, brooding, irresponsible and self-absorbed. A character calls him King Midas’ brother—everything he touches turns to shit. We think she’s exaggerating because it’s early in the movie and she is pregnant with what might be his child, complicating her plans with her husband, and has reason to be upset with him, but as the movie goes on we find her statement to hold not an ounce of hyperbole. How does Llewyn feel about his gifts as a killer of joy? He isn’t a pitiful sad sack, nor does he nobly defy his bad luck. He doesn’t enjoy anything, but if he did, it might be his ability to sow discord. Look at his face after he’s been beaten up by the husband of the poor woman musician he mercilessly heckled the night before. This is not a face of “Why me?” It’s a face of “Well, my work here is done.”
Llewyn’s new album isn’t doing as well as he’d like and he’s therefore homeless, couch surfing among his friends throughout the city (which takes some doing when your main skill in life is alienating people). He begins at the Gorfeins’, a wealthy intellectual couple on the Upper West Side who feel like they are doing their cultural duty by playing patron of sorts to a bohemian like Llewyn. He’s awakened by their cat, a yellow playful thing that has a knack for slipping out the door, as Llewyn finds out when the cat escapes and leaves him locked out with no one to care for the creature. He schleps guitar and feline downtown to try to stay with Jean (Carey Mulligan), a fellow musician who is none too pleased to see Llewyn because she is already hosting a vagabond, another singer named Troy (Stark Sands), a square yokel on furlough from the military, and because, as she writes on a notepad to keep Troy from discovering, she’s pregnant.
Jean and her husband, Jim (Justin Timberlake), have formed a duo that’s doing quite well and she has designs to start a family, but she doesn’t want that family to begin with doubt. Whatever happened between Jean and Llewyn is not going to happen again and she wants to terminate the pregnancy, something, not so surprisingly, Llewyn has been through before. Jim, a sweet character who finally gives dimension and a back story to the guy who sang “I gave my love a chicken” in Animal House (1978), doesn’t suspect anything and even gets Llewyn a job singing backup on a novelty record called “Please Mr. Kennedy” about being shot in a rocket to outer space. Llewyn thinks the song is beneath him but he needs the money and needs it now, giving up his rights to residuals for a quick payout, sealing the song’s fate as a hit. Did I mention that the cat got out again, only this time Llewyn can’t find it?
Llewyn’s further adventures include a trip to Chicago with Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his “valet” Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), a duo in which one does too much talking (Turner has opinions on everything from the Welsh to Santeria) and one who does too little (Johnny Five might have gotten his name by the number of syllables he can string together on a road trip from New York to Illinois). That trip ends with an audition for the manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) that does not go well. “I don’t see a lot of money here,” Grossman tells Llewyn, to Llewyn’s eternal satisfaction. He’ll be a martyr for art, happy to know that his brand of music is too good for the masses. Did I mention that there’s a second cat now, also in precarious circumstances?
The story is set in winter but we get the impression that Llewyn lives his life in that state. The colors here are muted and washed out; it’s not a beautiful movie (there is gorgeous camera work, though, especially in a sequence in which Llewyn travels on the subway that is mesmerizing and haunting. Too-cool Llewyn observes it as blasé, but the cat he is traveling with is awash in wonder), but the ugliness reflects this self-made Sisyphus’s world view—drab, colorless, cold. How else can things look to someone who is a singer, but when the act of singing is described as the “joyous expression of the soul” looks at that person like they’re crazy? In Chicago, Llewyn steps in a mound of snow, soaking his shoe and sock to his great irritation, and yet soon, after suffering his latest defeat, he will walk directly through a snow patch on the sidewalk when he could have avoided it. He wants to be miserable. He needs to be miserable.
We are kept from wallowing in that misery by the Coen brothers, who write and direct (and edit for good measure) their blackest humor since A Serious Man (2009), which Inside Llewyn Davis resembles. In A Serious Man, bad things happened to our Job-like protagonist because they were what he feared most and fate cruelly played with him. Llewyn Davis isn’t Job-like; bad things happen to him because he wants them to more than he wants good things and fate happily obliges. The humor here is philosophical and it makes us ask why this person is this way, even as we laugh at him. It’s this philosophical intrigue that covers up some of the movie’s rough patches. It’s episodic and each episode lurches and crashes into each other with few of them gaining closure. That’s a complaint about an ordinary movie, a category to which this one doesn’t belong. While we never see the resolution of Llewyn’s and Jean’s relationship, what happened to his ex-girlfriend and the child they had together, Llewyn’s grappling with the suicide of his musical partner (driven off the Washington Bridge by too much exposure to sourpuss Llewyn perhaps), Llewyn’s career in the Merchant Marine, his relationship with his father or his sister, or the whereabouts of at least one of the cats, these events are loose threads left in the unraveling scarf that make up this man of limited talent but unlimited selfishness, someone who would rather share his disdain with all around him in the name of genius than prove that he has any himself.
The Coens have their knack for wonderful details, and here I was delighted by the small hallways in the Manhattan apartments and a quartet of Irish crooners with perfectly matching sweaters. The richness of the detail makes up for some lack of richness in the message (ultimately, once you accept that Llewyn is a schmuck, there isn’t much more to say), but there’s more than enough in the performances, the look, the feel and certainly the music to take away from a movie about a man who is impossible to like in a movie that is impossible not to ignore.
The story is not about a musical genius who wasn’t allowed to make his art. It’s about a man who wants to be thought of that way. Llewyn isn’t good enough to demand that he make it on his own terms, vainly refuses to compromise about that, and isn’t lucky enough to make it on anyone else’s. How else can you explain that he gives his best performance on the night the New York Times is in the audience and the guy who follows him is Bob Dylan?