The titular Llewyn of "Inside Llewyn Davis" is hard to like – rude, inconsiderate, emotionally closed off – that is, until he picks up a guitar, and plays you one of those gut wrenching, heartache-inducing, wailing folk songs, the kind that bring tears to the eyes and goose bumps to the skin.
"It's OK not to like him. I think for some reason we're conditioned in movies that the protagonist must be heroic or redeemable in some way, whereas in theater that's not a necessary," says Oscar Isaac, who plays Llewyn. "But I'm a completely unobjective person to ask because I love Llewyn. My job was to understand him so I feel like I do, and I find his actions to be selfless."
Loosely based on the folk singer Dave Van Ronk – known as the "Mayor of MacDougal Street" – Llewyn is a young artist struggling to make it in Greenwich Village's early 1960s music scene, before Bob Dylan showed up and made folk music a mainstream success story. Llewyn lives the epitome of a bohemian lifestyle: homeless and schlepping from couch to couch at the benevolence of his friends; living off the scraps collected in the passed basket of his gigs at the Gas Light Café; wrestling with the meaning of singing "authentic" folk music – music that one industry exec tells him, "I don't see any money in" – without selling out, or becoming a "careerist" as he calls his friends with more conventional ambitions.
However Llewyn doesn't exactly do so with a smile (and to get into character Isaac tried spending an entire night mingling at a party without smiling). Llewyn wears a look of near constant misery. He often responds to others' acts of kindness with deadpan insults. He even refuses to play his guitar for the hosts kind enough to invite him for dinner.
"I see so much trying and struggling, and I know people who have gone though similar circumstances when life is crushing them, I withhold that kind of judgment," Isaac says. Llewyn is his most sympathetic self when he is performing – from the very start of the movie which opens with him singing a haunting rendition of the traditional folk song "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me."
"The music that you hear that he plays is a direct result of his circumstances. That music that you hear and the way he sings it in the movie is coming from that desperation," Isaac says. While moviegoers today will surely be touched by the music, those in Llewyn's world doubt his commercial viability, and giving up on his dream entirely is but one turn of bad luck away. The irony is the tough circumstances that isolate Llewyn from those around him, also make his music incredibly moving.
"If he was more extroverted would perhaps more people like him? Maybe. Maybe he's so closed in that it narrows that audience," Isaac says. "But for those who do catch on to the wavelength, I think it does resonate powerfully."
In that sense, and in many others "Inside Llewyn Davis" is both profoundly sad and profoundly funny. It is directed by Ethan and Joel Coen and – in true Coen brothers fashion – it continues to reveal its many dimensions over repeat screenings. While you are laughing for much "Inside Llewyn Davis," you walk away feeling like you should be crying. Isaac says much of his work with his directors had to do with "tone management."
"When I auditioned for it, I played up the humor quite a bit – I was very lively," he says. "After I got the job and I started doing a lot more research on it and I thought of the comedy of resilience: Why is it that sometimes we laugh at people in hardship. Is it sadistic? Are we laughing because we're relieved that it's not us?"
Isaac says he was inspired by the work of Buster Keaton – a comedic silent film actor who encountered all sorts of humorous hardships with a stoic demeanor. "There's always this kind of look that's never changing and I thought that allowed a lot of projection. It allowed you to see a rich inner life. He's not playing it cool," Isaac says. "And really my barometer was whenever I thought of it as a comedy it just wouldn't work that well, and whenever when I was in the most pain the Coens would laugh the loudest, so that's what I would do."