“You’ve probably heard that one before, but what the hell. If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”first spoken dialogue in Inside Llewyn Davis
The coldest murder in the Coen Brothers universe doesn’t have anything to do with bullets or a blade. It doesn’t involve Javier Bardem and a bolt pistol, Liam Neeson and a river, or Steve Buscemi and a wood chipper. It happens on a blustery winter afternoon in Chicago, moments after Oscar Isaac, as Llewyn Davis, has performed a tragic English ballad for an audience of one.
The star-crossed protagonist of Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) has in fact ventured to Chicago from New York, weathering a small hail of indignities, for just this moment. His one-man audience is the impresario and artist manager Bud Grossman, who runs the Gate of Horn, a marquee folk club. Llewyn’s audition is a chance to win Grossman’s professional favor—and, it seems, a last-ditch effort to convince himself that he still has a sustainable future as a folksinger. The song is “The Death of Queen Jane,” and he treats it with utmost care, picking his Gibson L1 at a cradle-rocking tempo. His singing is pure and affecting, reaching an emotional crux in the last verse, which he tenderly offers a cappella, with a faraway gaze. The silence that follows—for “a good beat” in the script, and a heavy ten seconds in real time—is punctured when Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) finally renders his judgment: “I don’t see a lot of money here.”
Thud! The coldest, like I said. And while the outcome probably would have been the same, it’s worth considering how this moment would have played if Llewyn had chosen a song with more life-spark. Something like the pivotal main theme of Inside Llewyn Davis: a folk lament known as “Fare Thee Well” or “Dink’s Song,” and first logged in the historical record by John Lomax, who heard a Black woman named Dink singing it along the Brazos River in Texas in 1904.
By this point in Joel and Ethan Coen’s downbeat picaresque of a film, set amidst the bootstrapping Greenwich Village folk demimonde of the early 1960s, we’ve heard Llewyn sing snippets of two distinct versions of “Fare Thee Well.” Each time, the song sheds crucial light on his psychological state, which could charitably be described as tenuous.
The first instance reveals an absence, as Llewyn, after waking up in an apartment in Morningside Heights, puts on an album titled If We Had Wings, by Timlin & Davis—his former duo with another folksinger, Mike Timlin. What we know about Timlin could fit on the head of a record needle: he was clean-cut and well-liked, he sounded like Marcus Mumford, and he ended his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. (Only a couple of these details are revealed in this scene; we learn the rest soon enough.)
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