If you are looking for light holiday viewing, Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, isn’t it. If however you are compelled by the power of myth, by the archetype of the artist as a dark hero on a difficult journey, or have firsthand knowledge of how success is often dealt out by the cruel draconian dictum of “timing is everything,” Inside is a portrait that any artist will find familiar.
Llewyn Davis (portrayed with a pitch-perfect blend of frustating and sympathetic by Julliard-trained Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer in New York City during the early 60’s right at the cusp of folk music breaking into the mainstream after years of being underground and overlooked (in the final few moments of the film we watch Llewyn leave the Gaslight Cafe while Bob Dylan, newly arriving on the scene, is playing.) Loosely modeled after Dave Van Ronk‘s self portrait in his 2006 memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Llewyn is unlucky, unpleasant and while talented, not in possession of the kind of genius that might lead to international fame.
From Llewyn’s early performance of “I’ve Been All Around This World” with its more famous chorus of “Hang me, oh hang me, I’ll be dead and gone,” we then follow his very difficult life over the course of a few days. He is without a home and mooches for a couch to sleep on from anyone and everyone. His relationships with his “friends” and family are in various stages of broken disrepair, and he has a problem getting cats back to where they belong (there are two of them over the course of the film.) His hero’s descent is best epitomized by a nightmarish car trip to Chicago in a snow storm with two unsavory characters (one of them played by an unforgettable John Goodman) as well as one of the aforementioned misplaced cats. His destination, the folk nightclub called Gate of Horn,* proves to be another disappointment for this young and troubled artist who is only alive and connected with the sweet and the transcendent parts of life when he is singing.
From the LA Times review by Kenneth Turan:
Though Davis clearly has the karma of someone who couldn’t catch a break with both hands, “Inside” also reveals him to be a genuine artist willing to stoically suffer the cards dealt him if that’s necessary to preserve his creative integrity. It’s the film’s empathy with him, its sympathy with the plight of artists in general, that makes “Inside” an unexpectedly emotional piece.
Llewyn Davis is a complex, contradictory character who sometimes does the worst things for the best reasons and comes alive most fully, most appealingly, only when he sings. It’s a gift no one can take away from him, not even himself.
The notion of the struggling artist—one that values suffering as the price of great creativity—is frequently treated as an outdated 19th century concept that is not in keeping with our current fast paced, “no time for laggards”, DYI social culture. I have mixed feelings about the ease with which that meme is referenced and/or dismissed. It would be dishonest and a disservice to truth to eschew the extreme difficulty associated with being a committed, self-employed artist who neomances works into existence from their inchoate and imagined state. Not all artists pulled the rough road card of course, but there are way more of us, the yeoman foot travelers, than those lucky enough to make the journey in a cushioned carriage. Wherever you sit with how art comes into being, this film offers an unforgettable portrait of the darker side of a way of life that feels as if it chose us. Like Lleywn, I can’t not do what I do.
*Homer explained that it is through the Gate of Horn that true dreams (rather than false or deluding ones) will pass.