By PHUONG LE
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) directed by Joel and Ethen Coen is a cynical portrait of a much idealized era. Greenwich Village in the 1960s with its burgeoning communal folk scene suddenly puts on an aloof guise in this film where the winter is so cold that people’s faces become hazy from their own breath. New York City in Inside Llewyn Davis is strangely still, even though the life of its eponymous protagonist, a young folk singer, slowly descends into chaos.
The very first shot of the film introduces Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), not through his face, but by a lingering close-up on his microphone. He is defined by his melancholy folk songs which tell of loneliness, hunger and death, situations a struggling artist knows only too well. It is more difficult, however, to sympathize with him as a person. Characteristic of a soloist, he resists any attempt to domesticate his lifestyle or his music. Relying on the kindness of friends and strangers, Davis spends his nights on couches in other people’s homes including the Golfeins whose cat he accidentally lets loose. He criticizes the popular duet Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Cary Mulligan) for being careerists but does not shy from borrowing them money. Davis is unabashedly proud although his inability to succeed musically culminates itself in a stack of unsold vinyls. Here is where the central paradox in Inside Llewyn Davis comes in.
Jim and Jean can afford to sing about not having a penny to their name since their music sells and they have a roof over their head. Even the communal nature of folk music is reexamined. There is Troy Nelson (Stark Nelson), a young military man who takes off his uniform to put on a striped shirt and perform love songs, although he himself speaks of thriving on discipline and weaponry. There is also Al Cody (Adam Driver) who first appears as an urban John Wayne, fully cladded in a cowboy hat and leather boots, only to reveal later his Jewish name. Nevertheless, the inherent sincerity found in these characters’ music make us wonder whether the Coen brothers deliberately make fun of them or aim to depict the struggle to fit in the folk scene through these walking contradictions. In spite of the film’s bleak color scheme, the cinematography intensifies the artist’s desire to become substantial through music. Discarding the common practice of panning across the audience, here the camera routinely tracks into the performers’ faces. The audience is, in fact, almost never seen. Once the stage is lit, their shadowy figures become another part of New York City’s landscape, full of disappointment and false promises. Regardless of the characters’ personal backgrounds, the film heightens the importance of finding the artistic self in music, something that Llewyn Davis evidently struggles with.
Unlike Al Cody or Troy Nelson, Llewyn Davis refuses to compromise his music which only increases his social detachment and financial insecurity. One of the most fascinating sequences in the film is when he carpools with two other performers for a gig in Chicago. One of them is Roland Turner (John Goodman), a jazz musician and the other is Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), his companion. Suddenly the screen offers us a crossroads between American historic eras. While Turner is the man of 1940s jazz culture with his fedora, purple suit and gold cap cane, Johnny Five who combs back his hair and wears a leather jacket over a white T-Shirt is an ode to the Beat generation of 1950s. As these three decades stretch out somewhat uncomfortably in the little car, the scene springs up a tragic sense of displacement when definitive personalities are unable to express themselves artistically.
Swirling between absurdism and existentialism, Inside Llewyn Davis questions its own cosmic joke on its protagonist. Is Davis’ failure a result of a changing music industry? Or is he unsuccessful simply because he constantly makes bad choices? Unlike the Gorfeins’ lost cat who instinctively finds its way home, in the end, Llewyn Davis remains a lone wanderer without a winter coat on the noirish streets of New York City.