Synopsis: A week in the life of a young singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie you enjoy but don’t realize quite how much until you find yourself thinking about the characters and the world they live in long after your initial viewing. Some stories are structured with plot points to help move the audience along. Then there are stories structured with characters, more specifically their experiences and reactions. Oscar Isaac plays such a character, the titular Llewyn, and his journey is one many people can relate to, even those who lead a far different lifestyle.
Llewin is introduced as the kind of storyteller you want to hear stories from - a drunken night owl who on occasion takes a well deserved punch to the face. It’s easy to deduce that this is how most of his nights end. What follows is a typical morning, on a loaned coach in an apartment that serves as one of a handful of friendly quarters that keep him from freezing on a park bench. In this case it was the Gorfeins’ apartment and Llewyn makes the mistake of allowing their cat to escape, starting him on one of his many journeys throughout the film.
This movie is a fascinating retelling of the hero’s journey because unlike Odysseus and his wild adventures, Llewyn moves forward without an ounce of sentimentality. He has to return the Gorfeins’ cat, named Ulysses, because it’s their cat and needs to be returned home. When his music career seems dead in the water, it’s back to the merchant marines simply because it was what he did last. It doesn’t have to be the merchant marines, and if it’s not, well then it will just be something else. It doesn’t make a difference.
In a particularly powerful scene, after being asked to perform a song while at a dinner party, he throws a tantrum arguing that his talent is not a parlor trick. Folk music is his profession and how he pays his rent. This is not how you’d expect a tortured artist to describe his calling, especially since the one thing we know for certain is that Llewyn pays no rent. Either he doesn’t know why he performs, or doesn’t want to admit it, but the choice to continue playing his guitar and singing his songs carries a meaning that is far too heavy for someone like Llewyn to deal with.
Llewyn is his own worst enemy. He exudes neither joy nor misery, only frustration. He was once a rising star, but tragedy set him on a new path and now he is lost with no direction home, almost exactly like the Bob Dylan song goes.
Greenwich Village in the early 1960’s both captured and created a zeitgeist that we’re still talking about today. It’s because they found a brilliant way to communicate an experience that almost everyone goes through at some point in their lives. Like the ending to Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, sometimes we all reach a dead end and ask, “what now?”