The key scene in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” – one of the best films, by far, released in 2013 – is ever-so-quiet and understated. It comes toward the end.
It’s 1961. Struggling Greenwich Village folksinger Llewyn Davis has traveled to Chicago in the hope of landing a long-term booking in one of the country’s biggest and most influential folk clubs. Davis is going to audition for Bud Grossman, the club’s weary and canny proprietor, in an empty and dark club, hours before it opens for business.
Davis hands Grossman a copy of his solo LP called “Inside Llewyn Davis.” OK, says Grossman, gently amused by the title’s pretension, let’s hear something from “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
So Davis sings “The Death of Queen Jane.” Lord only knows why. Nevertheless, the rendition is beautiful.
Grossman listens, respectfully. He’s heard a lot of auditions in his life, and what he says in response is equally respectful. He knows he’s just heard a competent and professional performer, and he says so. And then, with all the decency and diplomacy he can muster, he lowers the boom. What the club owner and shrewd folk music businessman says to Davis is utterly inarguable – and potentially soul-killing.
Despite its quietude and subtlety, it is one of the two greatest scenes in movies of 2013. (The other is the first heartbreaking moment in “All Is Lost” when Robert Redford’s foundering yacht passes within mere feet of a cargo freighter, but the freighter is so huge that no one aboard can either see his yacht or hear his frantic screams for rescue.)
It is a haunting scene. And a diabolically clever and powerful one. Why? Because, for one reason, the actor playing Grossman is F. Murray Abraham, the actor who won an Oscar for playing Salieri in “Amadeus.”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is an extraordinary portrait of a fictional folk singer in Greenwich Village of the ’60s whose hopeless problem is this: He’s not Bob Dylan, nor could he ever be. It’s the era of folk music’s revival that gave birth to Dylan. Davis, like Mozart’s Salieri, is doomed to exist on an outer perimeter from genius.
The casting of Abraham as Grossman is only one of countless examples of how brilliant and haunting this film is about a very talented young performer who’s just not talented enough.
No small matter is the subtly dramatic change you can sense in the movies of Joel and Ethan Coen, the two extraordinary American filmmakers whose smug, smirking superiority has given recent American movies their most breathtaking taste of misanthropy.
Something new has entered the Coens’ movies in the recent update of “True Grit” and their first film directly about their Jewish background, “A Serious Man.” And now, again, you see it in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” in which it’s clear they’re being satiric about the music and its milieu, but ever so gently and lovingly so. That’s because when the music is presented, it is close to exquisite. The soundtrack disc is exceptional.
Who would have thought that the Coen Brothers would feel such kinship with early ’60s folkies? How on earth did that happen?
I think I know. Whether he intended to or not, musician T-Bone Burnett has taught them something about being human. Their first collaboration was “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” one of the Coens’ snottiest, most insensitive and most repellent films, a film that had the ghastly smugness to treat the privations and sufferings of rural America during the Depression as comic failures of taste and style.
The film is one of their worst. And yet the music, assembled and produced by Burnett, was an extraordinary homage to root music of the Depression. It sold 10 million copies. Burnett showed them things about their casts, their films and their animal species that the Coens had never entirely known.
Davis is no struggling saint. Far from it. He’s a perfectly drawn portrait of a self-absorbed early ’60s pre-feminist Bohemian, sleeping with other men’s wives (Justin Timberlake plays his colleague, the cuckold), getting them pregnant, raging at those who were once fans but who never really “got” him. He’s the kind of wanderer who, on being given a couch to sleep on, rewards his departed hosts the next morning by inadvertently locking their cat out of the apartment through carelessness.
But even there, it is the genius of the Coen brothers that this low-level jerk (played to be as likable as possible by Oscar Isaac in one of the year’s great performances) has very good reasons for his quietly traumatized self-absorption.
His life has truly become a fight to establish an identity, personal and artistic. He was once half of a moderately successful performing duo, but then his partner jumped off a bridge to his death.
That, it seems to me, is the fact that animates all others in “Inside Llewyn Davis.
In truth, no film of 2013 has haunted me as continuously as this one since seeing it – not even close. That is despite the fact that I was, in life, no folkie in 1961. My attitude toward the folk revival of the early ’60s was much the same as John Goodman is in the film’s most hilarious scene.
Goodman plays a junkie jazz piano player who can hardly walk even though he has crutches. “In jazz,” he sneers to Llewyn in the car, “we play all the keys.” He brags that he’s a man who began his career with Chano Pozo in New Orleans (a semi-obscure reference to a jazz percussionist famous for playing with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie).
Despite Goodman’s contempt – and the sullen personality of folk music’s main practitioner here – the folk music in the film is clever and uniformly beautiful.
If Burnett has truly become an unofficial Coen brother, he has brought them to a human level that, with all their talent, they’ve simply never attained before.
One of the great films in their exceptional filmmaking lives.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Four stars (Out of four)
Starring: Oscar Isaac, John Goodman, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, F. Murray Abraham
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Running Time: 105 minutes
Rating: R for language including some sexual references.
The Lowdown: Sullen folksinger in 1961 tries his best to get a life and a solo singing career started.