“I do not think my dream came through the gate of horn. If it had, my son and I would feel happiness at what it suggested.”
— The Odyssey
There’s little reason to think that the titular guitar strummer in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis will ever come to much of anything. When first spotted in this chilly film, Davis (Oscar Isaac) is determinedly hunched over a microphone and lavishing bleak care on the traditional number, “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” whose chorus notes, “I’ll be dead and gone.” After a polite response from the crowd, he steps into the alley behind the dark coffeehouse and gets socked in the nose by a man who keeps grumbling about “What you did.” Things don’t pick up much after that.
An apparent veteran at couch-surfing, Davis is also prone to sabotaging his career and relationships. Over a week or so in 1961, he’s unable to benefit from any of the burgeoning interest in folk music that’s enlivening the Greenwich Village scene. (His music is reportedly based on that of Dave Van Ronk, whom everybody knew but who never made the big time.) That first number is pretty much the only time he performs a song that anyone applauds, however coolly. Other responses to his renditions range from a club owner’s clipped “I don’t see money in it” to his aged father’s blank stare. This even though Isaac’s voice has a resonant dolefulness that in a more romantic story might have helped him find success, however meager.
But here the Coens appear to be back in Barton Fink mode, setting up a straw man whose creative arrogance ensures that he won’t see a moment’s happiness from his work. At the same time, with the beautiful songs selected by T Bone Burnett, the filmmakers are also returning to that sensation of giddy roots rediscovery that gave a spine to all the goony caterwauling of O Brother, Where Art Thou? Davis might be just as egotistical as Fink — he critiques the ambitions of Jean (Carey Mulligan), a singer he may have gotten pregnant, as “a little careerist, a little square” — but he also makes appealing art, unlike the playwright’s terminally self-important bloviations. But still, Davis’ inability to navigate even the simplest of social niceties dooms him.
For much of the film, Davis is scurrying around Manhattan, trying to pull something together: a gig, a couch to sleep on, a friendship, even a real winter coat. Crashing one night at the Upper West Side apartment of a couple of academic friends (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), Davis accidentally lets loose their cat when he steps outside. Unable to get back in to the apartment, he walks the streets and rides the subway with the attentive tabby, named Ulysses. When it escapes again, he chases after it, haphazardly, while also careering from one low-level catastrophe to the next.
We learn that such careering is typical of Davis, who once had a partner with whom he recorded, and their take on the traditional “Fare Thee Well” (Marcus Mumford providing the other voice) has all the markings of a hit. But while Davis is on a quest for fame and glory like any other struggling artist (and like Odysseus, as an early reference makes clear), he’s plagued by his own sense of artistic purity and resistance to all things “business,” as well as an infinitely regenerating bad luck. His solo album is out, but not getting any play. His agent might be stiffing him, but Davis doesn’t do anything about it. A nightmarish journey to audition for Chicago’s Gate of Horn nightclub leads only to an offer he considers beneath him. Jean hates him, everybody else thinks he’s a loser, and at last, we have a hard time caring whether he finds his way.
Further complicating our interest in Davis’s quest is the gradually suspicion that a good part of what we’re seeing might not be real. Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography gives interiors and dark highways alike a slightly fuzzed-over look. Characters drift in and out of Davis’ view, as in some kind of waking dream, most of them delivering judgment on him or warning him in some way.
One of these warnings comes in the form of fellow folkie Al Cody (Adam Driver). Like Davis, Cody has his own box of unsold solo records, stuffed under table in his apartment. Another, fiercer caution is embodied by Garrett Hedlund as the driver during a particularly nonsensical road trip, one that features John Goodman as a sarcastic teller of tales who responds to the story of Davis’ old partner’s suicide by pondering, “You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge, traditionally. The George Washington Bridge? Who does that?” Little of what any of Davis’ acquaintances says makes much difference to him. He only wanders on, even as he’s perpetually punished for it.