When the Coen Brothers were asked, at the press conference following the New York Film Festival press screening of their wonderful new film Inside Llewyn Davis, about the cold, gray, blustery look of the film, the journalist pointed out that he only recalled seeing a blue sky in one shot of the film. The brothers seemed to admonish each other for letting one slip in. When you think about the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s, the picture’s setting, “you think about New York in the winter,” Ethan explained. “You don’t want to see it in the summer, when it’s green. Basically, the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, that look and that weather is part of that.”
The figure of Mr. Zimmerman looms large over the narrative, though he only barely appears (and cleverly, at that); they were interested in setting their film “in the scene before Dylan showed up,” Joel explained. “We weren’t that interested in the period after — he came out of that period and changed it, he was such a transformative figure, and people know more about that, and it seemed less interesting to us.”
But the film is full of those little subversions: narrative threads are set up but not paid off in the expected ways, the protagonist’s character arc entails him becoming less sympathetic, and big names like Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan play surprisingly small roles. The latter makes sense, considering the film’s episodic structure and the character’s stubborn nature; it is, as Ethan calls it, “an odyssey in which the main character doesn’t go anywhere.”
That character, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) mostly sticks to the Village. He’s a folk singer, playing traditionals (“You probably heard that song before,” he tells his audience), without a fixed address or income. He couch-surfs, relying on the kindness — tolerance, mostly — of other musicians, and when he wears out his welcome there, he’ll head uptown, where Upper West Side intellectuals take him in like a mascot, presumably so they can tell their friends how they hobnob with beatniks. He used to sing with a partner; that ended badly.
The Coens’ muted, low-key film spends a few almost-eventful days with him. He discovers that the Jean (Mulligan), the female half of the couple he stays with on occasion, is pregnant — possibly from their own earlier, ill-advised tryst, which resulted in the kind of relationship where every third word to him is “asshole” and every question warrants a “fuck you.” He ends up taking care of the Upper West Siders’ cat, and discovers exactly what a nightmare that is when you don’t actually have a home of your own. He makes a stunning discovery about an old girlfriend. He contemplates throwing in the towel and going back to the Merchant Marines. And he takes a road trip to Chicago, sharing the car with a grouchy dandy of a jazz man — played by John Goodman in a glorious goatee and bad rug.
For years, Goodman was the Coens’ go-to bellowing fat man, turning in memorable supporting work in Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and The Big Lebowski, but this is his first appearance in a Coen Brothers movie since O Brother, Where Art Thou back in 2000. I asked why this was the right role for the reunion. “We just knew that John would understand it,” Joel explained, since the part was an “old gasbag character.” And was there a shorthand between them? “It’s just something we’ve always fallen into,” Goodman said. “On Raising Arizona, they asked me to do a take one time, when I was driving an automobile, and I said, ‘Oh, a Spanky take!’ They knew what I was talking about — Spanky from the Little Rascals — those are the kind of little things that help make the day go ever so faster.” For his part, Joel recalled a moment during Barton Fink when Goodman was to open a door, “and I said to John, ‘Can we have a little more ropey snot on this take?’ And John said, ‘I’m your man!’”
It’s that kind of attentiveness to detail that makes all of the Coen Brothers movies so memorable — particularly those, like Llewyn Davis, that are of a quieter disposition (as opposed to the broad comedies or crime dramas). It’s not that it’s a film without wit; in one scene, Llewyn tells Jane, “the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people,” to which she interrupts, “and losers?” And there is some vintage Coen character quirk, including a brief, great appearance by Adam Driver (of Girls) as an eccentric guitarist playing on a novelty record, and the Lebowski-ish comic back and forth between Llewyn’s record distributor (Jerry Grayson) and his secretary.
But it is mostly a sad story of an aimless performer whose window is about to close. He’s offered a chance to perform in a pre-fabbed, Peter, Paul, & Mary-type trio by a manager named Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) — who shares, incidentally, the surname of the real-life entrepreneur who not only put that group together, but marketed Bob Dylan. And Dylan transformed the folk scene’s focus from traditional songs to original compositions, which left performers like Llewyn holding the basket.
“The success movies have been done, haven’t they?” asks Joel Coen. “It’s less interesting, from a story point of view. I don’t know how we would even start to think about that.” But they don’t sneer at Llewyn. They beautifully and convincingly recreate the streets and coffee shops where he dwells, and seem intoxicated with the look and feel of those surroundings: the narrowness of the hallways in a downtown walk-up, the way cigarette smoke drifts into the darkness of the Gaslight, how those giant old microphones reflect the shaft of the spotlight, the way the sun seeps into the empty Gate of Horn in mid-afternoon. Most of all, they love the songs, which are always allowed to play in full, telling an old, sad story of their own.
Inside Llewyn Davis screens October 5 and 11 at the New York Film Festival. It opens December 6 in limited release.