I received the DVD of "Inside Llewyn Davis" as an early holiday gift and watched it for a second time on Christmas Eve. It is an enigmatic film set largely in Greenwich Village during a single Winter week in 1961. The Coen- brothers directed film explores the early folk music movement and ends with a performance by a young newcomer, Bob Dylan, which radically changed its nature. I remember Bob Dylan's early days when I was taken with him as an adolescent and some of the early performers of the folk movement. Later in life, I developed an interest in the blues which was something of an offshoot and which experienced a revival through the folk singers. The Tom Lehrer song "Folk Song Army" aptly satirized much of this movement.
The film explores its title character who is central to every scene and who receives a remarkable performance from Oscar Isaac Davis is a young, bearded shabbily dressed singer and guitarist whose performing partner has just committed suicide. The suicide is a major part of Davis' depression and difficulty. He struggles to make it on his own through poverty, rejection, and finding places with friends and acquaintances to spend the night. He has slept with a young woman who has become pregnant and agrees to fund an abortion. He also acquires a tabby cat who apparently belongs to a well-to-do couple who admire his music and help him out. The cat becomes Davis' companion for much of the film.
The movie invites reflection on Davis' life. He is self-centered with a probably unjustified regard for his talents and at the same time unambitious. He has a gift for alienating people. At the same time, he appears to be devoted to his music to a much greater degree than other faddish or commercial musicians and their fans. He is a loner with little education and some background in the Merchant Marine which he shares with his aged, near -comatose father.
There are many bitingly satirical scenes in the film as well as many moments of sadness. The film is slowly paced with shadowy cinematography on New York streets and clubs and on a mad road trip that Davis takes to Chicago and back. The movie uses a great deal of symbolism with the cat, a shadowy, violent stranger, and above all the music. The film gets "inside" Llewyn Davis by its in-depth portrayal. Some will see Davis as a modestly talented, self-centered, and dislikable figure while others will see him as a person of artistic and personal integrity who is struggling to make his way. So to with folk music and the years of the early 1960s. However one understands Llewyn Davis and folk music, the film makes clear that he, unlike other performers, will not become successful.
This is a thoughtful, sad, beautifully done film about a loner whose ambitions almost surely exceed his abilities. The film also takes a probing look at the ambitions themselves. It is a sad film that poignantly explores tensions in the way many Americans tried to understand themselves in the mid-late 20th Century.