It is very unusual for a movie about music to have no soundtrack. Inside Llewyn Davis certainly features plenty of musical performances by its titular character, as well as songs sung by the characters that stop by the film’s Gaslight Café and its recording studios, but the film itself is free of any score. Like life, everything is silent until you choose to look for sound, or you make it yourself.
The film is also life-like because nothing truly happens in it. One can only concoct his own, personalized story from the cold humdrum that is displayed on screen. Joel and Ethan Coen just let the camera follow these characters in a realm that is mythically familiar, yet utterly unknown. They are not interested in the Ginsbergs, the Baezes, or the Zimmermans of the Greenwich Village canon. Those were individuals whom history has already celebrated. They are remembered, loved, hated, and still and all talked about. Yet Llewyn Davis never made it past the Village, and neither did Jim and Jean or Al Cody. Full of dreams, hopes, and passions, they aimed for immortality like the folk songs they played, but mere dreams, hopes and passions are never enough. Luck is also a factor, and so is a good manager, and so is that one quality of eccentricity that every one of them lacks. The only exception, one who does possess that gift of idiosyncrasy, is a blurry, quiet, and fresh-faced boy with boisterous, curling hair and a boundless love for Woody Guthrie. He materializes only as the film concludes, and he seems to exist solely to nail these other, fledgling figures to rest, and to turn fictional Llewyn Davis into an effigy for all the hapless and the forgotten. Fittingly, this boy sings Farewell, as if to elegiacally say goodbye to these fervent, unremembered souls.
Davis (portrayed by real-life singer/songwriter Oscar Isaac) is only one of the many folk musicians of Greenwich Village in the 1960s. What makes him special is that he is not special at all. He’s just another musician, with no well-defined flair or expertise. He has a pleasant voice, and he was once in a musical duo. They had one particular song that sounded almost as if it could have been a hit, but then his partner jumped off the George Washington Bridge, and Davis was left alone to cope, both personally and professionally. In death, the partner is simply forgotten, but so is Davis. He is just one in a hamlet of musicians. What holds him back, however, isn’t just his community or his tragedy. It is his needless pride and his utter refusal to compromise.
Completely unalike the two cats that accompany him on his benumbed journey, Davis does not move along fluidly with nature like they do. He learns nothing from the felines, and never once ponders whether he should or not. Bored and uncomplaining, the cats in Inside Llewyn Davis resolve to carry on to wherever nature takes them. They have no preference, and no particular place they want to be. They adapt to their surroundings with ease, and they are able to compromise, willingly trusting and following nature rather than their own conceit. If only Davis also acted in the same manner. Unfortunately, he is too involved with himself to be patient, and too conceited to simply pay attention to his surroundings and learn from it.
The floundering musician’s narcissism is best demonstrated when he thumbs a ride to Chicago with a weak, sickly, and irritable jazz musician by the name of Roland Turner (John Goodman), and his beat and muffled chauffer, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). The ride is uncomfortable and charged with Turner’s endless sneers at folk music and at Davis’s own character. However, although Turner is maddening and pitiable, he also seems to be somewhat successful. He has performed internationally after all, whilst Davis cannot even find work outside of the Gaslight Café. It is more to Davis’ advantage to be accommodating of a man that may be of some help to him and his career, or to even just stay quiet. Instead, he feels defensive, and fights back by contemptuously barbing at Turner in return. When Johnny Five is suddenly and absurdly arrested and taken away in the middle of the road along with his car keys, Davis just leaves the strung-out and swooning Turner in the car, on the side of the road, and walks away, squandering yet another potential opportunity at greatness, as well as his one chance to shed his obsessive self-regard.
The Coens crowd their subtle film with muted hints for their protagonist to grasp at, but Davis just gawks at every one of them absentmindedly. Every one of these hints and allusions merely go to waste: Davis spots but only frowns at the film poster that exalts the gift of instinct; he brushes off the many people that implore him to be less inflexible, more thoughtful, and less unkind; and worst of all, he misses that nasal-voiced young boy’s sad musical elegy at the Gaslight Café – his one shot to even gaze at greatness – because he is being battered outside by a stranger whose wife he’s slighted. Davis only seems unlucky, but his failures are manifestly rooted in his inability to be a good artist: He cannot compromise and nor can he unscramble all the metaphors and allegories and signs that have been laid out for him to find and see and to save himself with. As a result, he metamorphoses not into some musical myth, but only a cautionary tale.
And the whole film is a very cold affair. Even the lens is unyielding in its gray plaintive tone. It almost pities these unfulfilled characters. As Davis’ life meanders listlessly from here to there, the camera follows him in the same, natural way as a cat that ambles out of an open door, compromising a structured plot for something real, and something that is more sincere than mere fiction. In a sense, Inside Llewyn Davis is more authentic than the folk scene it melancholically romanticizes. Though those in the Village all flaunt authenticity with their songs and with their ostensibly genuine personas, the irony lies in the fact that the folk scene they’re involved in does not demand authenticity at all. What it looks for is personality. Davis is no different: He murmurs ridicule at an impressive but soulless a capella quartet, before verbally ravaging an elder lady from Arkansas in front of the Gaslight audience. She is perhaps the most authentic of the Gaslight’s visiting folk musicians, but the Village crowd is not looking for real authenticity, and neither is Davis. However, he doesn’t seem to understand this incongruity between what is referred to as authenticity and cool, skillfully constructed artifice. Full of contradiction, he gloats endlessly about authenticity and jeers at those that do not understand it, while, at the same time, haughtily instructing his sister to throw away his musical past – and all that essentially makes him authentic – so as to maintain his non-existent “mystique.”
Davis is correct to think that he needs some mythical element to trail behind him throughout his career. After all, those who did end up finding success and leaving the Village never really were as authentic as they claimed to be either. Bob Dylan was authentic in neither name nor persona, and neither were Peter, Paul, nor Mary. Their legacies were built from the ground up, hand-made and well thought out. They were given names and they decided upon particular mystiques so as to bring these names to the fore. Though Llewyn Davis and Al Cody (Adam Driver) also know that they must adhere to this notion of mystique, they simply don’t know how. A name change does nothing for the average-looking Cody, and mystique is useless for an artist as utterly anonymous as Llewyn Davis.
Even though he needs it, Davis is misguidedly too stubborn to tolerate the idea of that forged authenticity that he is just savvy enough to recognize. When Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) offers him a supporting role in a trio after bluntly telling him that he’s not a substantial talent in any way, Davis refuses. He is incapable of listening, and even more incapable in compromising his vain ideals for a prospective shot at renown. He strives for that authenticity, without ever grasping that he never was a genuine individual to begin with. Jean (Carey Mulligan) reminds him of this when she notices that Davis is paying more attention to the cat he’s lost than the pregnancy he’s caused, but once again, her words fall only on deaf ears.
Despite all the shortcomings of these failed musicians, Inside Llewyn Davis never once condescends these few artists whose legacies dimmed as others’ were canonized. It instead pays tribute to these beautiful, failed, and flawed artists, and not once judges them for their defects. It only watches, briefly taking delight in the songs of the forgotten few, until their cold fates become so plain and so cheerless that even the film is forced to leave them all behind.