“Fare thee well my own true love
And farewell for a while.
I’m going away, but I’ll be back
If I go ten thousand miles.”
That song was originally published in England in 1710. Like Llewyn Davis says on stage, if you feel like you’ve heard it before, but it sounds new, well, it’s because it’s a folk song.
Folk singing in 1961 was all the rage in Greenwich Village. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) wanted to make that scene. His father was a merchant marine ship captain, famous in his own circles, but Llewyn had other dreams besides the open sea. He wanted to be with his acoustic guitar and a microphone in front of some small, quiet, appreciative audience in a dark club, spotlight on him, everyone in rapt attention to his own brand of vagabond troubadour soul. And he did, in fact, make it that far. It’s just that it wasn’t going to go any farther. Not while Elvis was King and Motown was supreme, and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were preparing to explode on the scene.
Llewyn has a sister with a young son; they live in an apartment not too far down the subway line, but Llewyn is not really all that welcome there. He cusses too much around the boy, and he mooches meals and the occasional sofa, but it’s all take and no give. Same way with his friend the sociology professor and his wife; they love introducing their “folk singer friend” to their socialite friends, but Llewyn really can’t stand their fawning for very long, so he’ll pick a fight and storm out and go… to his old girlfriend’s house, the one who’s also kind of a wanna-be folk singer, but is now having visions of raising a family in a house in the suburbs, which Llewyn considers downright betrayal of the cause. What exactly the “cause” is, we’re not too sure, but we think we’re rebelling against something, and we know we don’t want a nine-to-five job like everybody else. So it’s rotating couches and sometime road trips, sleeping in someone else’s car, and constant cigarettes and perfecting the ironic and the sardonic, which plays pretty well in the urban setting in the middle of winter, the evolving beatnik coffee house.
Ah, but the times, they are a-changin.’ Llewyn Davis is like a preacher latched on to a denomination in a downward spiral; he doesn’t know what to do other than keep doing what he’s doing, but what he’s doing obviously isn’t working, so there he is, all revved up with no place to go, the caustic cynic predictably emerging from the frustrated idealism.
Oscar Isaac is perfect for this role, with his soulful Cuban/Guatemalan handsome visage, and his Julliard training enabling him to so completely understate his solid musical talent. Oh, yes, he can pluck a six string. He can sing, too, in a kind of balladeer’s back alley warble. Carey Mulligan almost steals the show as the angry former girlfriend; we can’t take our eyes off her even when she’s not being charming. But the mood and the context belong to the writers/directors Ethan and Joel Cohen, who once more give us a slice of Americana that never was, but feels so achingly real.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.