SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS.
Last month my family and I did our usual Christmas Day routine (dim sum lunch and a movie) and chose to see the latest Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. The previous year, we saw The Silver Linings Playbook, which I also wrote about, complaining at the time that I prefer movies to come with a “side of truth.”
Well, this time, I got a movie that served up not a side, not a meal, but a flippin’ banquet of truth, and a very bitter one, at that.
So I won’t kid you. As I already mentioned in my recent Oscar nominations rant, this is a very difficult film. While we were all in agreement that the performances and music were glorious, my family disliked it to varying degrees.
I, on the other hand, loved the film. Not loved as in it left me feeling happy and content and humming the music as I left, but as someone who thought, “FINALLY, someone is telling the truth about what it’s like to try making it as an artist in this world.” Even a month later, it remains as a vivid experience. As a writer, I found a lot to identify with in Llewyn’s tale.
Set in New York City in 1961, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer who used to be part of a duo. He has no permanent residence and couch surfs among whatever friends and bare acquaintances who will accommodate him for a night or two. One couple, folk singers named Jean and Jim (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake) try to help him out by getting him gigs. It also turns out that Jean is pregnant, and possibly by Llewyn. An older couple, who live on the Upper West Side, refer to Llewyn as their “folk singer friend” and practically force him to sing for his supper.
In a desperate bid to turn his career around, Llewyn hitchhikes to Chicago with a drug-addicted jazz musician (John Goodman) and his beatnik driver (Garrett Hedlund) so he can audition for one of the biggest music reps in the business.
The story has been called “plotless” by some critics (which makes me wonder how some people get paid to be critics when they don’t even understand the word “plot”). It’s not plotless, but it certainly subverts the standard plot you find in most movies—both fictional and biographical—about musicians and other artists.
In fact, it crushes just about every myth about talent and success and failure. Llewyn is clearly talented. No one can say he’s not trying hard enough—he hitchhikes in the middle of winter to Chicago to audition for one of the biggest managers in the business (F. Murray Abraham), for crying out loud. He’s presented as a relentless creep, but gets no redemptive character arc (say, the way Dustin Hoffman’s character does in the movie Tootsie). In fact, there are moments when it seems he MIGHT do something that will lead to a moment of redemption—and the Coen Bros. pull back from it every time.
The reason Llewyn fails, I believe, isn’t because he’s untalented, or not trying hard enough, or because he’s a jerk. It’s an inability to adapt. His singing partner killed himself, and Llewyn can’t adjust to being a solo act. He sings songs that are beautiful but also morbid. When Jean and Jim and one of their friends go onstage at the club Llewyn sings, they do a rendition of “500 Miles” that engages the audience to the point where they sing along. Llewyn sneers at them and yet probably wishes he could connect with an audience the same way.
Jim arranges for Llewyn to record a novelty song. Llewyn, desperate for cash and thinking the song is nothing, signs away his right to royalties so he can get paid immediately. The novelty song becomes a hit and his chance for some financial security is lost.
The clash of art and business is something all artists must face. When he auditions, he is told by the agent that he “doesn’t see a lot of money here.” That scene really hit home with me because I once had a similar experience. (I was told by an editor at a writer’s convention—to my face, at a pitch session—that no one would ever buy the novel I wrote. She was both right and wrong: another editor became interested in it, but rejected it after I did rewrites.)
Trying to find that balance, staying true to yourself as an artist while taking commercial viability into consideration, is a struggle for many. What makes it worse is that no one can really know what’s going to click and what isn’t. We know that the big shot manager who rejects Llewyn is right—but only in hindsight. (The character of Llewyn is based on a real-life musician named Dave Van Ronk, who many feel never got the recognition he deserved.)
In the final scene of the movie (which is a return to the opening scene—most of the movie is an extended flashback) Llewyn is beaten up in an alley by the husband of a singer he had cruelly heckled. When he returns to the club, another singer—clearly meant to be Bob Dylan—takes the stage. The Coen Bros. here are showing another reason why Llewyn is doomed to eternal failure: his kind of folk singing is about to become passé. This is the onset of the singer-songwriter phenomenon of the early ‘60s. Unlike his friend Jim, Llewyn doesn’t write songs.
A few critics have flat-out accused the Coen Bros. of snottiness for creating a movie about abject failure, when the two of them have been in the artistic catbird seat since they left film school. Along with a very small handful of filmmakers, they can make anything they want without worrying about commercial viability, due to a small but loyal fan base and work that often attracts heaps of awards (not this time, though, ironically). They occasionally cross over into mainstream success (i.e. No Country for Old Men) but don’t need to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars to keep their careers going.
Perhaps that makes them perfectly qualified to make a film about failure—they probably wonder why they made it while others don’t. Many fail because of a lack of talent, or a lack of discipline, or because they become distracted by other areas of life, or simply give up. Or, like Llewyn, they have the talent, focus and drive, but fail because they can’t adapt to a changing world completely out of their control.
The movie is harsh, but so is this path. I appreciated its honesty.
Coens On Top Form With Inside Llewyn Davis – (philipdodds.com)
What’s Not on the Page: The Magic Performance at the Centre of Inside Llewyn Davis – (inalonelyplaceencounterswithfilm.wordpress.com)
Review: Inside Llewyn Davis – (aculturedvulture.wordpress.com)