Before we see any image from Joel and Ethan Coen’s newest film, a title card reads: “Gaslight CafÃ©, 1961.”
This title card acts like a curtain that pulls open to unveil a world that appears only in our imaginations, in the memories of those who lived through this period and now in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a melancholy journey through Greenwich Village’s subterranean folk clubs that explores the limitations of one’s talent and how dreams validate our existence. It is also likely the best picture of the year, a triumph of personal filmmaking in the age of CGI superheroes and bloated franchises.
We first see Llewyn Davis, played by the terrific actor-musician Oscar Isaac (“Drive”), singing the song “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” the camera hovering around him as a spotlight shines down, creating these luminous lens flares that amplify Davis’ dark, charcoal-colored curls.
From the sound of his polished tenor voice, this is a man full of passion, all the while consumed with bitterness and contradictions from the harsh realities of breaking into New York’s folk scene.
Davis is loosely based on the real-life folk singer Dave Van Ronk, a man who guided a young Bob Dylan through the New York folk scene when he stepped off the train from Duluth, Minn., and later changed how rock ‘n’ roll was played.
But ultimately, this film is not a biography about the people who lived through this time – but more a composite that walks around a distinct universe filled with oddball humor, elements of surrealism and a reverence for period detail. In other words, the film encompasses all the facets we come to expect from a Coen Brothers film.
The film follows Davis and his guitar through a week that leads him couch surfing in and around the village, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Queens, where his sister lives, and on a bizarre road trip to Chicago with Roland Turner, a loquacious know-it-all with a heroin addiction played by John Goodman, and Johnny Five, the chain-smoking driver that appears to have stepped out of a Levi’s ad played by Garrett Hedlund.
Through this peculiar journey to the Windy City, Davis hopes to meet Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a talent manager who represents folk singers and the man Davis believes can free him from the harsh realities of being a struggling artist.
Davis is not a likeable character, wanting sympathy from no one, particularly viewers. He is a Coen brothers antihero that falls from the same cinematic tree as The Dude (The Big Lewboski), Barton Fink (Barton Fink) and H.I. McDunnough (Raising Arizona), but we care for him because there is a Llewyn Davis in all of us; we are all gatekeepers to our aspirations that we must protect from the cynical.
The Coens and music supervisor T Bone Burnett, who worked together before in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” have again created music that speak about the characters we see on the screen. These timeless folk songs electrify every scene in “Llewyn Davis,” music that enables modern audiences to comprehend that revolutions in the 1960s were indeed started in dim-lit cafes called basket houses.
Whether it’s Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) singing in harmony with their military friend Troy (Stark Sands), we realize this isn’t our music, but the characters’ music that conveys the joys and sorrows of being young in Kennedy’s America. It never feels hokey – the interpretations of these songs feel contemporary and organic in a way that will leave one transfixed by just how long these songs have been around.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is an ethnographic film shown through the eccentric prism of the Coen Brothers – a film about a specific time and people in American society unwilling to conform to society’s norms; it is a folk song in motion that is both tragic and beautiful, and up to the end, will leave you guessing what it, and this thing we call life, ultimately all means.