The Coen Bros deliver one of the finest films about artistic frustration and disappointment in this study of a pre-Dylan Greenwich Village folk musician who cannot seem to get his personal and professional lives on track. The filmmaking duo has become synonymous for developing protagonists who are simple-minded, yet greedy people who feel that they are entitled to something they did not earn, like Jerry Lundegaard’s poorly planned ransom scheme in Fargo or Llewelyn Moss’s discovery of coveted drug money in No Country for Old Men. In this film, even though Llewyn Davis is not an idiot and he works hard as hell to earn the fame and respect that he feels he deserves, it is yet again, like the protagonists before him, all a pipe dream and all for naught.
That is the toughest realization about the Coen’s latest film because, from the audience’s perspective, we know Llewyn is a charming and talented songwriter and has the will to succeed, and yet the world says no. Oscar Isaac is absolutely magnificent as Llewyn and he performs all of his own singing in the film. Outside of the beautiful musician we see on stage, Isaac portrays the title character as being quite full of himself. You can sense his bitterness when he sees his friends Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) are drawing larger crowds and a good-natured musician (Stark Sands) tells him that he scored a deal with an important music producer. One of the heartbreaking things about Llewyn is that he is his own worst enemy and his jealousy, pride, and refusal to adapt are the reasons why he is always broke and couch surfing from apartment to apartment each night. He thrives off the generosity of his friends, some of whom still put up with him and others who are getting tired of his shtick, and yet he still feels that he’ll find success if he can just get out of the Gaslight Cafe and find a real gig.
During the latter half of the film, Llewyn unexpectedly joins a car pool to Chicago with two strangers, the silent poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and the offensive jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman). The road trip reveals some previously undisclosed secrets of the film and eventually leads to the climatic scene of the film in Chicago. However, my main issue with this section was that I had no idea why Llewyn, a man with hardly a dime to his name, had agreed to go on this trip with these two characters and to split the gas bill for the trip out there. I do not recall anyone discussing the possibilities that awaited Llewyn in the Windy City and, until I realized why he had come all this way, I thought that the Coen’s had thrown this section of the film together just to have extend Llewyn’s odyssey and have him meet a few new wild characters. Once we realize why Llewyn has come this far then the road trip immediately starts to make sense and represents his one last hurrah at trying to make it big. On the road trip back to New York, an absolutely revelatory decision-making scene takes place that will touch a nerve with anyone who has had a split second chance to face the past and couldn’t. The look of future regret is painted all over Llewyn’s face and we hope, for his sake, that he can channel this into his music.
The film has a very stark, yet beautiful aesthetic and the wintery city streets and Beat-style cafes of 1961 Greenwich Village are completely realized through the production design and cinematography. The Gaslight Cafe is the center of the musical sequences in the film. With its dingy bar and tables, the piercing stage light through an almost complete darkness from the rest of the cafe, and the string of right off the bus New York newbies signify that this basement cafe is going to be an important starting point for the birth of the generation’s folk scene. Designer Jess Gonchor has truly created a world that feels like it is on the brink of change, but has not yet been influenced by Swinging London or modern art. You can see the hints of early-Mad Men playing a part in the design of the film as New York is finally moving from Eisenhower-America towards a more modern, but young style. Cinematography Bruno Delbonnel who is famous for his very colorful palettes and sweeping camerawork on the French films Amélie and A Very Long Engagement does a complete 180 as this film primarily uses stark whites and dark blacks and browns. These new color palettes perfectly display the winter season in New York while also complementing Llewyn’s increasingly frustrated and sullen mood.
And finally, there is the cat and that oddly cyclical beginning/ending. I have to agree with all of the theories that Llewyn and the cat represent the same person. From that early subway scene where we see subway stations whizzing by and only see the cat’s face in the reflection to the coincidental timing of when he hits the cat with the car after the decision on the road trip back to New York. By making the decision that Llewyn ultimately makes in that split second on the road he could be denying himself any sort of purpose in life. Just like when he does not take the royalties for performing during the song “Please Mr. Kennedy” with Jim and when he refuses to perform as a backup for someone that has lead singer potential, Llewyn is constantly keeping himself from succeeding and from finding purpose. I believe that hitting the cat on the road represents all of the times we have see Llewyn keep himself from a simple, but admirable life because of his own pride. The movie begins and ends during the same gig at the Gaslight Cafe and each time he is beaten up by the shady husband of a wife he heckled the night before. Has Llewyn learned anything at all? Do the revelations from Jean and the doctor mean anything to him or are they fleeting emotions that he’ll end up disregarding in a few months? On his trip out to Chicago he contemplates graffiti on a bathroom stall door that says, “What are you doing?” He doesn’t know what he’s doing or where he’s going and for a man that lives day by day I don’t think he’ll even remember that graffiti in a few weeks. At the end, Llewyn sees a young Bob Dylan playing at the Gaslight Cafe and I believe this is a sign that, at least for him, things are only going to get harder and he’s nowhere near prepared.