By Timothy Troutner
In the opening scene of Inside Llewyn Davis, a 2013 film directed by the Coen brothers, the young musician Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) takes the stage at the Gaslight Café in Manhattan and plays a stunning rendition of a folk song on acoustic guitar to modest applause. After his set, he walks into an alley behind the café and is viciously beaten. His surprise at the senseless violence mirrors that of the audience, shocked by the contrast to the haunting beauty of the music.Thus begins the Coen brothers’ exploration of beauty and senseless suffering, set in the Greenwich Village folk music scene at the beginning of the 1960s. Llewyn Davis is a talented but hapless musician who can’t get producers to recognize his genius. Time and time again he misses out on chances to make his fortune. Instead of earning money, he is dragging around his guitar and sleeping on other people’s couches pursuing the next chance to make it big. Meanwhile, he leaves behind a trail of debt, broken relationships, and unwanted pregnancies. He cannot even manage to take care of the cat that keeps showing up in his life, perhaps the only living being he shows any real affection toward.
The filmmakers portray Davis’ descent into despair, plays masterfully with the viewer’s expectations and tragically raising hopes only to dash them again. At every turn the audience expects Davis to finally catch a break. Perhaps he will change his ways and fulfill his responsibilities as a father; perhaps he will finally make it as a musician.
Despite all the emotional pathos, one cannot help but be enthralled by the film’s soundtrack. It is a movie about music, and it does not disappoint, capturing the twang and pathos of American folk music, from old classics to fleeting glimpses of a rising star named Bob Dylan. Oscar Isaac is a musician as well as an actor, and his performance as the musician protagonist is mesmerizing. The cinematography is superb as well, as are the performances of the other actors.
Yet the end may leave many wanting more. The film ends by returning to the opening scene, as Oscar Isaac plays through his haunting song and once again is beaten in an alley. The film has come circle, but have we learned anything? The directors seem to have stripped any hope, any lesson, and point from the movie by letting despair have the last word in a cyclical story.
The genius of the film, however, lies precisely here. Instead of ending with some moral for the audience or tying the plot together with some neat solution, the Coen brothers decide to let beauty speak for itself. Even in the midst of suffering, moral failure, and despair, the power of art cannot help but shine through. Authentically depicted suffering has redeeming value in itself. The success of the film is testimony to the inherent power of beauty itself, which can be deepened and brought into contrast by the unworthiness of its context and the failures of the artists who channel it.
Beyond this aesthetic triumph, the film also raises important questions about the countercultural movements of the 1960s, highlighting like few films have the heartbreak and loneliness that accompanied the pursuit of love and freedom in the counterculture at this time. The unflinching look at abortion highlights the social upheaval we now associate with the Sexual Revolution. The earnestness of the young musicians and their effort to revive the authenticity of folk music contrast strongly with the alienation that seem to result—Greenwich Village is a community of contradictions.
By the end of the film, when the camera returns to the performance at the Gaslight Café, we are world-weary, but wiser. Witnessing beauty’s ability to transcend dingy streets, moral failure, and social upheaval is a testimony that needs no happy ending or didactic exposition. Although it may be elusive, it cannot be completely extinguished, even by the senseless tragedies of life.
Timothy Troutner is a senior studying history and philosophy.