A few years ago, Tom Waits did a spot on The Daily Show with John Stewart. Before the taping began, Tom was using the men’s room at the television studio, and the bathroom roof fell in on him. In some ways, this seems like the sort of thing that could only happen to Tom Waits. In both his demeanour and his artistic output, he comes across as a grizzled, weary, and down-on-his-luck. Why would anyone be drawn to someone so sad-sack and alone?
Inside Llewyn Davis spends one week in the life of its titular hero (Oscar Isaacs), a folk singer in 1961 New York City. As the film begins, we are given a clear picture of what sort of singer he is. While some of his contemporaries are singing plucky tunes bound for AM radio play, he takes to smokey stages in dank clubs singing from the point of view of a criminal about to be hanged.
Llewyn is talented, there’s no denying that. Sadly, he’s also broke. After his first performance in the film, he awakes on the couch of The Gorfeins – music appreciators that open their Upper West Side apartment to Llewyn when he needs a hand up (which is often). As he goes to leave, The Gorfeins’ cat slips out. Unable to get the cat back home, Llewyn scoops it up and begins looking after it until he can return it.
That’s Llewyn in a nutshell: locked out of the last place he called home, holding more baggage than he carried walking in.
Llewyn’s week will find him crossing paths with friends and family. Most reach out their hand to help him, but few help him for long, and few help him to the extent that he needs. With his musical career stuck in neutral, his greatest need is monetary. Besides not having a place of his own, he cannot even afford a winter coat. Slowly, Llewyn is becoming less and less of a folk singer than he is becoming a character in one of his own songs.
As a greater need for money crops up with an old friend (who now mostly hates him), Llewyn hits the bricks with his guitar and cat in hand hoping he and get something going. Of course, if he’d listened to the lyrics in the songs he sings so often, he’d know exactly how his mission will play out.
One should be forgiven if they came away from Inside Llewyn Davis feeling cold. It’s a film that sells awkwardness and gallows humour, but goes on to unfurl bleakness and absence of hope. It draws us in with heartfelt music and a charming cat, so audiences would likely be thrown when the music stops and the cat disappears. However, if one follows the film down the long, lonely road it travels, one might well arrive at a destination marked with honesty and melancholic beauty.
This is a story that examines the nature of talent and success. Llewyn seems to be surrounded by people who enjoy his music – both people he knows, and people he hasn’t met. People listen to the way he honours the spirit of those who have come before him, performing old songs with high amounts of gravity and soul. They open their hearts and homes to him whenever he is in need. However, there seems to be no way to parlay that talent into great professional or financial success. It’s just not the sort of artistic offering that people shell out for. Music history is littered with these sorts of stories. Some of the musicians are recognizable names, others weren’t so lucky. They became cautionary stories or folk tales.
It’s the part of being an artist they don’t tell you about when you first pick up your pen, your pick, or your paintbrush. They don’t tell you that it isn’t enough to be good, you also need to be bankable.
As Llewyn struggles to accept the fact that he cannot earn his keep or pay his way through the craft that he has honed, the movie drags us behind him as he drifts along. It is less interested in where he is going than it is in how he gets there. That journey is all-at-once unlucky, subtle, introspective, and ultimately tragic. It’s not the sort of visual feast that one expects at this time of year, and yet it is perfectly suited for these cold dark months. It’s the time of the year where many of us spend many moments isolated in our own thoughts, unaware of the people around us or the unconventional beauty we might be a part of. Like Llewyn, we spend long moments lost-in-thought, worrying, and wishing. Like Llewyn, we seldom count our blessings, but instead fret over where we went wrong.
What the film allows Llewyn that our own lives seldom allow us, is a visual poetry to go along with his state of affairs. Take for instance the moment Llewyn goes to leave Chicago, unsuccessful in his attempt to catch the ear of the club promoter. His path to the bus back to New York is marked by an ankle-deep snowbank. The snow doesn’t gather ten feet to the left, nor ten feet to the right – only exactly where Llewyn needs to walk. It’s as if this film wants our hero to be the living embodiment of Eeyore. It wants him to act out how we feel at our most insecure. In scene after scene, these feelings we all wrestle with from time to time are illustrated with a deft hand. Sometimes it’s a silhouette in an alley, sometimes it’s graffiti on the bathroom stall.
Using a palette of greys and a soundtrack of gristle, Inside Llewyn Davis leaves us feeling much like its hero: isolated and despondent. We seldom laugh at Llewyn’s lot in life so much as we pity him for it. We see how much he is a man out of time and place. Those who don’t are smacked over the head with it in the film’s final moments when it has the cheek to underline to say “You thought he was unlucky before…“. It sends us adrift in twos and threes, letting us commiserate over the misfortune of one gifted artist and his rotten lot in life.
In doing so, it allows us to feel that much less alone.
[Ryan McNeil is a frequent guest on The Cinecast and prolific Blogger, Cinephile and Shutterbug at his own corner of the interwebs, The Matinee]