For every dazzling story of success and fame, there are hundreds of failures that we choose to not talk about. “Pursue your dream at all costs” is the opiate of the millennial age, a fraudulent battle cry that more often than not ends in defeat. And so it is for folk singer Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ poster boy for disillusionment.
Davis, portrayed by a star-turning performance by Oscar Isaac who channels those frustrated anti-heroes from the 40s John Garfield to 70s Pacino, is talented enough, but cannot seem to catch that brass ring. The resulting frustration pushes him into a narcissistic path of self-sabotage. He’s a bit of a shit, actually, who steps on people – not deliberately, but quite incidentally – so focused is he on that success that lures him from just around the corner. And every time he hits a roadblock, his uncanny ability to make the wrong choice, say the wrong thing or do a rash, impetuous deed only sets him back further from his goal.
This is the Coen brothers’ dark and moody take on the pursuit of stardom that will be looked back on as a masterwork. Fame is an illusory bitch in Davis’ mind, and he’s at his wits’ end in pursuit of it. His milieu, the folk singing genre, is pretty much localized to urban coffee houses in the early 60s, but is about to break into the mainstream. Davis intends to be part of it, come hell or high water. The Coens, however, will have none of this, choosing instead to give us a reality check on the odds that face all walks of life, that while some can subsist, many will fail, and only a smattering few will rocket to fame.
Not many of us alive remember the smoke-filled cafes in Greenwich Village where musicians and comics launched their careers, but, thanks to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s exquisite eye, we feel the stifling atmosphere of performing at arm’s length from a sometimes-disinterested audience. Outside, there’s either the damp chill under the city lights or the isolation one feels on a country road as Davis travels from gig to interview to gig, only stopping along the way to touch base with the family and former friends he has forsaken while chasing his dream. As well, Carter Burwell’s selection of songs for the score evokes the melancholy of both the period and Llewyn’s journey.
This Coen environment is populated with vagabonds who see themselves as kings.While it should be comforting that he’s not alone in his hunger for success, Llewyn regards himself as being above the fray – these people are to be put up with, mere stepping-stones on his route to fame. Carrie Mulligan, John Goodman (and his driver, Garrett Hedlund), Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver all appear as kindred spirits who have been wounded along the way but will not relinquish their grip – the slightest positive response or flash of public popularity only reignites their hopes and spurs on their illusions, and these are the people upon whom Davis relies for positive reinforcement. Unfortunately, the only possible soul mate for him turns out to be an alley cat he mistakes for a friend’s pet that escaped while in his charge, yet another casualty of Llewyn’s casual disregard for reality and responsible behavior.
Not to make the exercise sound too bleak, there is plenty of humor. The brilliance behind this is that it derives from situations we can all recognize. It’s funny if we relate and accept the Coen’s premise that life is a crapshoot that depends more on luck than effort; if one still stuck in the “future is yours for the taking” mode, well, not so much. For Llewyn, the truth only comes home to roost when the last domino of irony has fallen and, instead of being on stage, he finds himself in an alley getting the crap beat out of him by the husband of a singer he has just heckled. While Davis is face down in the dark alley, a novice named Bob Dylan captures the audience’s heart. The genre has found its messiah and the brass ring Davis has been reaching for is now gone.
Much of the inspiration for the film came from real life folk singer Dave Ronk; specifically an incident where Ronk was beaten in an alley, but that is where any similarities stop. The rest is pure Coen magic, as honest and observant as they have ever been on the battle between artistic integrity and the need to settle, to compromise for the sake of survival. While the film captured a slew of accolades from all directions, including the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Film, AMPAS primarily ignored it. I suppose that the idea that we are all basically frauds in pursuit of a mirage of commercial fame didn’t sit well with those lucky enough to have make it.
“Yesterday is just a memory, tomorrow is never what it is supposed to be.” – Bob Dylan