Follow a week in the life of a young folk singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. Guitar in tow, huddled against the unforgiving New York winter, he is struggling to make it as a musician against seemingly insurmountable obstacles -- some of them of his own making.Written by
Ewan MacColl's The Shoals of Herring was composed for and first broadcasted in a BBC 'Radio Ballad' in August 1960. Since the film is set in 1961, Llewyn Davis could not have recorded this as an eight year old. See more »
At some point of this the folk singer we've been following is stranded at night by the side of the road in a car with possibly a dead man and a cat, another man has just been arrested by police for not much of a reason. He gets out to hitch a ride and there's only a cold, indifferent night with strangers in their cars just going about.
This is the worldview the Coens have been prodding, sometimes for a laugh, sometimes not. I can't fault them, it does seem to be inexplicably cold out there some nights. They're thinkers first of all, intellectuals, so it stings them more so they try to think up ways of mocking that thinker who is stung by the cold to amuse themselves and pass the night.
So this is what they give us here. A joyless man for no particular reason, who plays decent music that people enjoy or not for no particular reason, who the universe has turned against. The Coens don't pretend to have any particular answer either of why this is, why the misery. It might have something to do with having lost a friend, something to do with not having learned to be simply grateful for a small thing. It might have something to do with something he did, the initial beating up in the alley is there to insert this. Sometimes it's just something that happens as random as a cat deciding to step out of the door and the door closing before you can put it back in. Most of the time it all kind of snowballs together.
It's a noir device (the beating - cat) bundling guilt with chance so we'll end up with a clueless schmuck whose own contribution to the nightmare is inextricable from the mechanics of the world. The Coens have mastered noir so they trot it here with ease: the more this anti-Dude fails to ease into life the more noir anomaly appears around him.
Of course the whole point is that it's not such a bad setup; people let him crash in their apartment, a friend finds him a paying gig, somehow he ends up on a car to Chicago where he's offered a job. It's not great either, but somewhere in there is a pretty decent life it could all amount to, provided he settles for less than his dream. (This means here a dream the self is attached to). I saw this after a documentary on backup singers, all of them profoundly troubled for having settled for less, all of them nonetheless happy to be able to do their music.
Still, 'The incredible journey', seen on the Disney poster, may in the end amount to no more than an instinctive drive through miles of wilderness. The Coens are cold here even for their standards. I wouldn't be surprised to find it was Ethan, the more introverted of the two, ruminating on a meaningless art without his partner.
Is there a way out in the end? Here's the trickiest part, especially for an intelligent mind. You can't just kid yourself with any other happiness like Hollywood has done since Chaplin. You know it has to be invented to some degree, the point of going on, yet truthful. Nothing here. More music, a reflection. It's the emptiest part of the film as if they didn't know themselves what to construct to put him back on stage. Visually transcending was never their forte anyway. They merely end up explaining the wonderful noir ambiguity of that first beating.
Still they are some of the most dependable craftsmen we have and in the broader Coen cosmos this sketches its own space.
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