The key scene to Inside Llewyn Davis occurs so early that you could be forgiven for having entirely forgotten it by the time its significance is known. That shouldn’t come as a surprise since the movie, focusing solely on the title’s mercurial folksinger, keeps things so close to its chest that by the ten minute mark it’s racked up glimpses into at least a half dozen of Llewyn’s hangups without giving anything away. The scene also sits so oddly with the rest of the story that it’s easy to discard it as yet another digression into Coen-esque mysticism. A shadowy figure who could easily be mistaken for The Big Lebowski‘s narrator, but with the deadly grace of Anton Chigurh, steps out of the shadows of a darkened alley to confront Llewyn, clocking him in the face and kicking him when he’s down before swaggering away. That this humiliating encounter should occur only moments after Llewyn’s spotlit acoustic set ends can’t be ignored, as it’s the first indirect suggestion that his passion and his misfortune are intertwined, branding him the stereotypical self-deluded narrow-minded hipster that continue to be complained about today.
Llewyn joins a long line of neurotic everymen who have suffered at the hands of the Coens, and though the Coens’s ambivalent treatment of many a Midwestern schlemiel has branded them as uncaring guardians of their characters, it’s hard not to see a little more affection thrown Llewyn’s way, if only because his profession requires that he bare his soul so frequently for the sake of others’ entertainment. So there’s an irony to the fact that his fatal flaw as the Coens’s leading man is in not embracing the call to actually entertain. His soulful solo performances play well to the coffee house crowd, but he can’t bring himself to churn out anything as ridiculously radio-friendly as chart-topping hopeful “Please Mr. Kennedy,” pricelessly performed in a studio session by Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver, and a disbelieving Oscar Isaac. It’s a familiar position for the Coens to be in, having rarely, if ever, bowed down to deliver something that wasn’t considered challenging, so in at least one way Llewyn is a kindred spirit to the inscrutable duo. For a pair of filmmakers who couldn’t resist opening A Serious Man with a serious nonsequiter of a prologue for no other reason that to give the movie a folktale-ish vibe, they would be right alongside Llewyn in any scene where another character casually rips on the folk music genre as a whole.
This is all to say that for as unlikeable as Llewyn is, he is largely sympathetic, his chief emotion being jealousy in the face of other musicians’ burgeoning popularity. Forced, either out of grief or pride, to embark upon a premature solo career following the suicide of his partner, he suffers the lack of charisma that his partner brought to the act. It’s another bitter irony to swallow that the more relatable musician should be the one to kill himself, another twist of fate that’s entirely out of Llewyn’s hands, especially since it’s not so hard to imagine musicians like Lennon or Garfunkel failing to find a wide audience without the palatable instincts of McCartney or Simon. LLewyn, for all his faults, is too young to have captured a loyal fanbase without a springboard of some kind. He has even stayed with the label that produced his album with his partner, albeit it’s one whose disengaged owner is too inept to find a market for Llewyn’s record.
Slowly Llewyn’s trap makes itself known. His only options, as he is repeatedly told by person after person, are to go back in time, reteam with his dead partner, re-up with the merchant marine, even to double layer his condoms in a spectacular rant by Carey Mulligan’s harridan Jean. Each suggestion, if not just unable to facilitate actual progress as Llewyn sees it, is downright impossible. His best chance at breaking out of the cycle comes via a referral which leads to a protracted road trip to Chicago. When that takes a turn for the surreal, and ends in disappointment, the Coens up the ante, elaborating on Llewyn’s unnerving predicament up to the very last scene. If his couch surfing doesn’t seem a permanent enough state of affairs, his unwanted pregnancy with Jean carries an eerie sense of déjà vu, with attention given to a near-exact situation in which he procured an abortion two years prior for another of his lovers. At first glance it looks like a coincidence, but stronger evidence elsewhere indicates a more horrific existential crisis on his hands. His life has caved in, following no linear direction, and, as hinted at in the finale, the simple rules of cause and effect no longer hold any meaning.
The Coens excel in mining black comedy out of the mundane, but they deserve credit for casting a solemn eye on Llewyn’s musical pursuits. Although his lifestyle is free game for dark laughs, his integrity is never in question, and his songs are never subject to mockery. Llewyn, like Larry Gopnik, shows the perils of taking oneself too seriously in a world beset by chance. It helps to be onboard with the Coen’s open-ended, philosophy-first, character-second outlook to appreciate their take on Llewyn’s story, but for a couple of screenwriters preoccupied with the Greek classics, their folk tale of a Sixties-era Lotus Eater hits more affecting notes than their blackest of comedies.