The ballad of a sad man

The Coen brothers' film about America's 1960s folk scene is a tender ode to noble failure

In Inside Llewyn Davis, the ballad of failure proves more tender than the banality of success. His own guitar and somebody else's cat in tow, Llewyn Davis, based on 1960s folk singer Dave Van Ronk and played with hang-dog grumpiness by Oscar Isaac, hops from one stranger's couch to another in New York's pre-Dylan folk scene, looking for a place to sleep and a professional salvation he thinks he deserves (and he deserves it).

Inside Llewyn Davis

Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and John Goodman. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Glum Davis may be looking for something else too, something that nobody is quite sure what it is, something that perhaps most people in the early 1960s, before Kennedy was assassinated and as Vietnam was becoming too hairy, were also looking for.

If this were a song, it would be a folk ballad _ soulful, witty, full of heartache, not because life is sad but because everyday tragedy is the most familiar chord on our instrument.

"Hang me, oh, hang me, I'll be dead and gone... Never mind the hangin', but layin' in the grave so long..." Davis _ or Isaac, a superb singer _ carols in the opening scene (the song was originally by Van Ronk, as are most of the others in the movie). That moanful invitation to have a noose around his neck is pure-hearted self-irony from the man who keeps trying and, inexplicably, failing, our man whose free-spiritedness is as much his gift as it is his malady, and the film's brilliance is in its expert balancing of these two.

With Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen have made what is probably the most sincere movie in their career. The whole world may be conspiring against Davis (just like it does to most of the brothers' dim-witted characters in Fargo, Burn After Reading and A Serious Man) but the cynical distance, the cool awareness that the filmmakers are smarter than their own characters, the qualities that sometimes makes their films hiply scornful _ these are virtually absent and replaced by genuine poignancy in the fate of a good and talented man who believes that there's something for everyone on this cruel Earth, even for an unlucky shmuck like him.

Like all young men and women with a guitar in those days, Davis is looking for a big break. He was originally in a duo, but his partner killed himself jumping off Washington Bridge. His album, released by a small label run by an adorably stingy manager, makes some critical ripples though not much in the way of royalties. Davis gets by playing basket sessions _ a hat is passed around the audience _ at Gaslight, a real underground venue in Greenwich Village where the hopefuls and the talents, including Dylan himself, pass through with the hope of being noticed. Through most of the film, Davis's personal life spirals down in a spectacular disarray. He's broke, he has no place to sleep, he riles everyone, he gets his friend's girlfriend pregnant (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), he's stuck with a cat that's not even his, and as the East Coast winter deepens and the snow piles up, he doesn't even have a winter coat to wear.

His redemption _ and fortunately, ours _ is music. When Davis sings, the world stops, the song resonates, and the humble poetry of his verses show the resilience of the harsh life that we live or at least that we know. The Coens conceived the film as a musical journey, and we're treated to Davis (or Isaac) performing several songs that range from melancholic to quirky (the duet with Timberlake in Please Mr Kennedy), from fable-like to painfully elegiac (If I Had Wings). Isaac's lyrical grumpiness is perfectly one pitch above despair; this bearded, unkempt and probably unwashed minstrel is not a loser _ he's just an insider who always finds himself on the outside, looking in through the glass. He's defiant, and that's just a ploy to save himself from further humiliation. What's central to the success of the film is Isaac's singing. Davis is a great talent, and what breaks our hearts is that while other less talented performers (they're not bad, but Davis is a real artist) get all the attention and the deals, he's left hanging in that wistful zone between defeat and resignation.

If I've made it all sound depressing, my fault. Inside Llewyn Davis is also a comedy, not the kind that tickles or that makes fun of grisly murders _ like the Coens seem to love _ but the kind that adores the unpredictability of human fate, especially young humans (unlikely as it may sound, the film reminds me of another notable American film of 2013, Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha). Davis is stuck with a cat to begin with, which is a cuddly animal or maybe a philosophical symbol if you need a mental exercise in that department (let's not). But the strangest, and probably funniest, stretch in Inside Llewyn Davis is when the singer journeys from Manhattan to Chicago with a drug-addled jazzman (John Goodman) and his "butler" (Garrett Hedlund). We slowly realise that this is Davis' Odyssey, a trip through a storm to see the devil (a kind one) and to hear his final judgement.

And there at the Gate of Hell _ it's actually Gate of Horn, a legendary folk music club _ his music, again very soulful and heart-felt, doesn't actually save him. But it saves us, because if failure and folly are this noble and touching, we're on Davis' side, even as the last chord is struck and the song is sung.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Bangkok Post columnist