Inside Llewyn Davis is a great movie. Detractors have talked about its despair, its lack of acknowledgment of folk music’s joy and community. But the Coen brothers didn’t set out to make a nostalgic movie about the bards of Bleecker Street, and they literally pull no punches, starting the movie off with our hero, Llewyn, being unceremoniously routed in a back-alley brawl. We don’t realize it at the start, but this is really a flashback to the end of the story, as the movie evolves into a shaggy cat tale of a musician down on his luck, disdainful of his audience, and ungrateful to his friends, who will end up in that back alley as the sound of a very young Bob Dylan wafts from the club, signaling the beginning of the latter singer-songwriter’s ascendance.
To understand what makes Llewyn Davis a great movie, it might be instructional to look at a movie, released early last year, from director Noah Baumbach, Frances Ha. Frances, like Llewyn, struggles to find a place in the New York art scene; in this case, the world of dance. Although Frances is a bit younger than Llewyn, she also has trouble finding and keeping a place to stay, at one point hiding out upstate at her alma mater in a dorm room. Frances is a thoroughly recognizable 27-year-old who feels that life might have slipped from her grasp, as she envies trust fund babies and alienates a friend who she is convinced is on the verge of selling out.
But unlike the figure in Llewyn Davis, Frances Ha’s story never rises beyond those narrow parameters. It is what it is, an entertaining tale of a charming millennial caught in the rough circumstances of her 20s. Llewyn Davis, on the other hand, delves deeper and cuts harder. Llewyn carries himself around New York City like a modern day Ulysses, stopping at ports of call, where he alternately is harangued by his friend Jean, whom he has impregnated, losing the cat of an Upper East Side couple who take him in, and mourning — without every saying so — his singing partner, who recently tossed himself off the George Washington Bridge.
The grief Llewyn feels about his partner is veiled but underscores every move. At a dinner where he is asked to perform, his grief breaks out in anger — both at being asked to be a “trained monkey” and at the idea that others mourn his former partner. This unexpressed grief — which can be translated to his clear, emotive vocals onstage and his terrific fury, which emerges inappropriately as he catcalls an Appalachian autoharp player onstage of a club where he also performs — fuels his every gesture. Even as he heads out to Chicago, hoping to play for a star-making club owner, he carries his jittery uneasiness with him, and you know long before his song is played that the owner will not find a star in Llewyn Davis.
“I don’t hear much money here,” says the owner, sealing Llewyn’s fate.
Frances, on the other hand is lighter and flimsier, and — this being a comedy — gets redemption. Traveling light, by the end of the movie she recovers her place in the world. It isn’t exactly what she dreamed of, but she is restored to the universe and on her way to something more stable and grown-up. She has an apartment, a job, and even does a bit of dance choreography. She has matured to a place where you might not be able to say everything that’s on your mind or achieve every bit of your dream, but you’re basically fine.
Llewyn’s tragic fate is nervier, darker. In the alley at movie’s end, the uneven fistfight arrives almost as a relief as well as a marker; you don’t know what Llewyn will do once he scrapes himself off the pavement, but you know that his struggles with this part of his life are finished. There is no Penelope waiting for him as he bumps into shore — he’s on his own. His travels have taken him to a desolate moment, a place where dreams are not fulfilled and there are no easy answers.
The courage and glory of the movie is that the Coen brothers don’t deviate from or sugarcoat this vision. In the process, they leave you with a slice of the world that reflects a harder sense of the cost of becoming an artist — that hard work, dreams, intention, and even talent may not be enough. It’s a cold message in a beautifully rendered movie from filmmakers who keep their eyes open, even if it hurts to see.