‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Painfully, Brilliantly Dramatizes the Indignities of Creative Life

The much-respected film critic J. Hoberman went after the Coen brothers recently. Apparently he has a habit of trashing them. This time out, his argument is that their new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, is a continuation of what he calls “an oeuvre rooted in a shared boyhood mythology of derision.” He says that its folk-singer protagonist is an “arrogant loser,” a “schlemiel” even. And he says that what the Coens do to him is just more of their habit of “bullying the characters they invent for their own amusement.”

Far be it from me to get in the way of a good contrarian take, but I guess I saw a different movie, because in the Inside Llewyn Davis I saw, much of the cruelty had a purpose. It just wasn’t a straightforward one.

I can’t stop thinking about the moment halfway through, for example, where the protagonist, reaching his own kind of Oracle of Delphi, offers up a sacrifice. Because this is a film about folk music, his tribute is a song. It’s a strange one, a very old folk song about the death of Jane Seymour. Seymour, for those who did not watch The Tudors, was the only one of Henry the VIII’s wives who died of natural causes, in childbirth. She was also the only one he mourned. Not that you need to know that to enjoy the song; the performance of it approaches the sublime. Hairs stand on end, etc.

But it’s still a weird song by any definition. You can’t sing along to the melody, it isn’t about love or longing in the way pop songs always are, and the subject is a lady nobody even remembers. So it is not particularly surprising that at the end the Oracle, in the form of a record label owner, simply says to Llewyn: “I don’t see a lot of money here.”

The verdict is devastating not because it’s brutal, but because it’s honest. Llewyn doesn’t lack talent, exactly. He just lacks the talent to make money with his talent. And the particular genius of this movie is that it doesn’t know for sure whether Llewyn’s indifference to commercial appeal should matter. Does everyone have to “appreciate” you, either with applause or money, to make doing art worthwhile? Every person who want to do creative work, which these days feels like just about every person who hasn’t totally given up on their lives, struggles with this question. I will cop to struggling particularly intensely with it in my life lately, and thus may have slightly over-identified with the bitter and brittle Llewyn. But the movie gives an answer to this question that’s far subtler and, in its own slightly-down-at-the-mouth way, more uplifting than the people calling this movie cruel and bitter are giving it credit.

I mean, obviously the answer has to be yes, yes it’s worthwhile, right? My brain’s snap to attention when he started singing means that it is for me, anyway. And I actually think, in spite of its significant ambivalence about art and creative life, the Coen brothers’ answer as embodied in the movie is yes, too. Hoberman quotes them, in his piece, as saying the film embodies “futility,” but maybe the point is that futility isn’t what it seems to be either.

In other words, like mine, the Coens’ filmed answer is a “yes, but.”

What Hoberman reads as derision or the torture of a schlemiel type, I read as simple honesty about creative life. It is straight-up infuriating taken day by day. We’ve been trained to think of artistic success as some kind of alchemy of hard work, talent, and pluck, but it’s not like that, not like that at all. Often it seems that your most crucial skill is the ability to swallow anger and frustration. You need that superpower to survive, for example, the Justin Timberlake honey-voiced hacks and Stark Sands idiot savants who quite easily manage, in spite of their lesser talents, to get by better than you do. You even need it for the fervent admirers, like a couple on the Upper West Side Llewyn’s befriended, whose love of your work can quickly morph into a sort of control. (The Gorfeins, as they’re called, make Llewyn perform for a procession of friends, not unlike a trained monkey, as he rudely but rightly observes.) And it’ll help you through the indignities inflicted by your relative poverty, too. The only way to keep going is to tolerate all of it in whatever way you can. This might make you “arrogant” in the sense that Llewyn is, which is to say he is a giant jerk to women and also sometimes to other people.

What, I wonder, would be the point of film that avoided any of that truth for fear of being called “derisive”? I mean, we have many such movies hanging out in film canisters across the nation. Commercial Hollywood loves a fairy tale about a hardscrabble kid who pulled himself up by his bootstraps and became a star. They gave that treatment to Johnny Cash himself, made him a sort of bad-boy-with-a-heart-of-gold, and that feels, to me, like a far bigger exercise in fakery than anything the Coen brothers do in this film. And even in its own way a kind of misanthropy, because creating characters who transcend humanity with their inherent goodness ain’t humanism in my book. I know that Hoberman isn’t quite arguing that he wants a Walk the Line treatment of the Village folk music era, either. But I guess you’ll see for yourself: this film is about as subtle and nuanced a treatment of the pains and privileges of talent as anything ever made. And it’s my favorite film of the year, so far.