Folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is auditioning for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) in a last-ditch effort to salvage his fading chances of making it as a folk singer. This single pivotal scene defines what the Coen Brothers superb “Inside Llewyn Davis” is all about. During his audition toward the end of the film, Oscar Isaac sings “The Death of Queen Jane,” and the song, fitting for its name, becomes a moment for a singer to eulogize the death of his career. Isaac lays bare the dying embers of once cherished aspirations. His performance of the song is stirring, emboldened by Isacc’s crooning vocals—the only part of Llewyn’s character that embodies warmth. Despite the clear talent and precision, we know from the start this is a doomed effort. Llewyn knows this too, made clear by Isaac whose eyes bleed with the interiority of a character whose walls are impenetrable. In the last verse, the guitar drops out and he sings the rest of the song acapella, chewing on each word as it passes through his lips. This is a man who has accepted, at least momentarily, the death of a dream in an industry of dream killers.
“Inside Llewyn Davis,” one of the most humanist stories told by the Coen Brothers, is about Llewyn’s grief. Told through the framing of an Odyssean journey that encompasses the all-consuming emotion, the film depicts the hellish transformation of an artist who has faced the wear and tear of being a musician long past his limitations. Aided by Isaac’s raw performance, Llewyn’s numbness, his anger, and his acceptance is given center stage through the utilization of folk songs and the clever way they’re implemented to echo stages of his grieving process. Each song he sings tells a story that relates to his emotional voyage.
It’s 1961 and Llewyn has lost his friend and other half of his musical career, Mike, to suicide. His death weighs over the entire film. Jean (Carey Mulligan), a singer who also happens to be unhappily pregnant with Llewyn’s child and awaiting an abortion, deflates after a heated argument between the two of them to say she misses Mike. Everyone seemed to know Mike and love him, from Jean to the friends who still tolerate Llewyn enough to let him crash on their couch, such as the Gorfeins. “Inside Llewyn Davis” follows Llewyn as he makes the trek from New York City to Chicago, and back again, seeking his big break, despite all the emotional baggage he carries and the sign of the times telling him it’s over.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” demonstrates a finely-tuned ability to position music as a method for character growth and trajectory. Nothing is ever laid out too literally, but we’re put in the passenger seat with Llewyn as he traverses his prickly sorrow; indicated through music and how he plays it. The opening song of the film, “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” embodies denial and depression, both in the performance and in the lyrics as he plays before a sparse crowd. “Wouldn’t mind the hanging/ But the laying in the grave so long,” he sings, followed by, “I’ve been all around this world.” Fatigue and familiarity with this cadence of folk song bleed throughout the performance, the result nice, if muted, further expressed in the casual disinterest of the crowd.
There’s bargaining—with his own sturdy-held beliefs—when he takes a studio job to record “Please Mr. Kennedy” with Justin Timberlake’s Jim and Adam Driver’s Al Brody. He’s already made his thoughts on Jim and his penchant for commercialized music clear, but then he takes the gig anyway. It’s yet another misstep on Llewyn’s part, however, when he accepts the flat fee rather than the royalties, only for the song to become a hit. The bargaining only goes so far for him, enough to pay an immediate bill but not enough to course correct.
Indignation and self-righteous fury come through when he tries to perform “Fare Thee Well” at the Gorfeins. In a scene of palpable discomfort, Lillian Gorfein (Robin Bartlett) attempts to add Mike’s harmony to Llewyn’s aborted performance of “Fare Thee Well” only to be met with outright hostility. They barely get through the first chorus, Llewyn furiously glaring at her all the while, before he jumps up and walks away, enraged by her interference and the way it brings those memories back. But “Fare Thee Well” is meant for two voices. In Llewyn’s audition with Bud Grossman, after having already shot down the idea of being one part of a trio, he confesses he was once a duo. “That makes sense,” Bud replies, and it’s a line that holds dual meanings. It makes sense for Llewyn as an artist to have needed a partner. It equally makes sense as the man he currently is, to be walking around lacking an anchor.
Music has the ability to transcend grief, to bear great art from it, and to heal. But it also has the ability to further wound—as in, songs we love that remind us of hard times. For Llewyn, Mike and his death bleed throughout his music. Llewyn isn’t poised for growth, but he’s still impacted by change. A cantankerous, stubborn, and bitter musician, the success of others aggravates his own entitlement. Despite that, Isaac infuses the performance with just enough naked grief that we root for Lllewyn anyway, even if any conflicts he runs into are by his own design.
His overarching, general demeanor is what makes his final passionate performance of “Fare Thee Well” all the more powerful, as it indicates a performer uninhibited by prior restraint—a man changed and shaped by grief and moving past it. He’s playing an old song with new eyes and in new tones. The skill is the same, but the vigor channeled into it vastly differs from previous performances. He plays with lyrics, changing them from the recorded version, and with structural form as he holds out certain growling notes. It’s startling how alive the piece is when thus far in his journey he’s carried on by a dejected pull of a string, strung taut with shoulders hunched as though he’s weathered the worst type of chill. Death of a dream has, in some regards, allowed him a momentary rebirth. Fitting, considering the line he speaks at the start of the film that both works as a deconstruction of folk music as well as Llewyn’s character.
“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”
The audition with Bud Grossman encapsulates the entirety of what makes “Inside Llewyn Davis” such an emotionally turbulent story. For all of the film’s acidic bite and its dark humor, there’s an oppressive sense of mourning that takes hold from the very start. It began with the death of his friend. And as he chases the remnants of possibility, he comes to realize that his journey was for nothing. It might not offer him his big break but “The Death of Queen Jane” is Llewyn’s acceptance stage of grief, both for his friend and, most notably, the acceptance of his dying career. With its depressive finality and lyrics that beg for a person to be separated from something—or someone—they love, the longing of the song becomes an act of closure for an artist who has been out in the cold, in wet shoes and no coat, for too long.
Llewyn can’t completely outrun his natural instincts, but he can adjust and make allowances for small but significant acceptances. The film deals with the idea that there are no neat conclusions to these journeys. We accept that those who have died are gone; we accept that our careers aren’t shaping up the way we imagined and that we’ve aged—maybe we even learn from them a bit—but human nature dictates a level of cyclical missteps, of bruised and wounded ego in the face of those assertions. A film about an artist mourning when music and even life was something he loved, “Inside Llewyn Davis” bakes that unflinching grief into its very DNA.