Joel and Ethan Coen open their new film with a close up of their lead folk musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) performing a moving rendition of the traditional folk tune “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” What at first serves as an introduction to the struggling Davis — a struggler in every sense, from finding fame to establishing healthy relationships — is glimpsed again at the end of the film, becoming the most pivotal scene in the story.
Taking place over one week in Davis’ life, the film finds him failing again and again. His most obvious failure is building a career as a solo act, following the dissolution of his partnership with another folk musician. It’s 1961 and the Greenwich Village folk scene is really beginning to take hold but whereas popular acts like his friends, the couple Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), are performing lighter, bouncier acoustic music — such as the catchy yet hilarious novelty song “Please Mr. Kennedy,” written by Jim with background vocals from Girls’ Adam Driver — Davis can instead be found rolling the lines “Hang me, oh hang me/I’ll be dead and gone” off his tongue. Whether he’s offbeat with the current trends, or ahead of his time, it’s hard to say but like another artistic Coen Bros. character Barton Fink, Davis is reluctant to “sell out.”
What becomes even clearer as the film progresses, is that Davis is reluctant to do many things. And even when he’s not being reluctant he always seems make the wrong decision, or the right one too late. He finds out early on that a one night stand with Jean resulted in a pregnancy. Both decide it’s best to terminate the pregnancy, but Davis needs to come up with the money to cover the procedure. When Jim gets him a studio gig on his aforementioned “Please Mr. Kennedy,” Davis takes a one time fee instead of waiting a little longer for the royalties to come in, despite the confidence from many that it will be a hit. It’s decisions like these where Davis’ true desires and aspirations become murky, perhaps even from himself.
The only character who appears able to look through him is Jean. Like Barton Fink, the film balances it’s more tragic aspects with deep seeded, dark humor. Although Jim, and thus Jean, are Davis’ closest friends in the Greenwich Village folk scene, and although Jean was obviously drawn to Davis at one point, she doesn’t treat him with anything but contempt throughout the film. It’s understandable at first, as the pregnancy threatens her relationship with Jim, but it becomes apparent that she sees a part of Davis others don’t, or ignore, again, including Davis himself.
Even as it seems Davis may be derailing his own success, though subconsciously, there are truly frustrating scenes thrown in to illustrate the external resistance he repeatedly encounters. After an amusingly uncomfortable trek to Chicago with the jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his driver Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) in hopes of gaining the legendary Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) as his manager, and play his club, Grossman asks him to play a tune. Davis opens his guitar case and plays a heart wrenching rendition of the English folk tune “The Death of Queen Jane,” only for Grossman to respond it’s not commercial enough and and offers he get back together with his partner Mike, an impossibility since he killed himself.
Davis makes his way back to New York, and the Village, and back onto the stage for the same performance of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” that opened the film. Only this time as he bellows out the lines “Wouldn’t mind the hanging/but the laying in the grave so long, poor boy/I’ve been all around this world” the performance is brought to a new level will the full weight of his soul on display.
Rating: 5 out of 5