I've talked a lot of shit about the Coen brothers in my day. And I've been criticized heavily for my perplexity over the constant sonnets of exaltation that Joel and Ethan Coen consistently receive. But now, with Inside Llewyn Davis under their belt, I am forced to eat a diarrhea-inducing amount of humble pie. A sobering, tragicomic glimpse into a week in the life of flailing folk singer Llewyn Davis during 1961 in Greenwich Village, the film is often plotless and frequently resonant for anyone who has ever tried to successfully live a non-normal existence.
To know pain and agony in this lifetime, all you need to do is have aspirations to be an artist. But what is "being an artist"? Can you not just be one simply by saying you are and then doing the things that your artistry entails? In a word, no. The looseness of the term not only encompasses the type of medium you're pursuing, but also an intense aversion to a conventional lifestyle. Because adhering to conventions and molds is, for an artist, almost more excruciating than failing at one's art--and by failing, what is of course meant is not making money. Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac, who has come a long way from his minimal role in Drive) is a man at the brink of continuing his passion or giving up and succumbing to the call of a more lucrative profession.
His career has stalled in the wake of his former music partner's suicide, and very few people seem to be able to take Llewyn seriously as a solo artist. His best friends and fellow folk musicians, Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan, easily playing the most expressive and ardent character in the film), help him get by through the more than occasional couch surfing allowance and informing of him of any gigs they hear about. But the kindness of friends and often strangers is not enough for Llewyn, who is starting to feel the clock tick on this mode of living, eking out an existence with nowhere to live and no tangible form of success. But then to "just exist"--as Llewyn calls it--like a regular person sounds equally as unappealing and debilitating.
After recording a track with Jim and his friend, Al (Adam Driver, playing essentially the same person as he does on Girls), Llewyn talks Al into letting him stay at his apartment for a few nights. It is Al who informs him of a gig in Chicago that leads Llewyn on a road trip with a stray cat, a grotesque jazz man named Roland Turner (John Goodman) and a practically mute driver named Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund, who is always at his best in mute roles). The presence of the cat, who Llewyn finds himself in possession of after assuming it was a different one that he was trying to return to a friend, is, according to the Coen brothers, one of the few sources that propels the plot. But it's also, in many ways, an allegory for Llewyn himself: Constantly flitting around from place to place yet somehow landing on his feet.
Llewyn ultimately abandons the cat and the road trip after Johnny gets picked up by a police man. When he arrives in Chicago, he seeks out Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) a music manager that was supposed to have received a copy of his record, but never did. And so, with passion and earnestness, Llewyn performs a song from the album as Grossman watches with eerie stoicism. Once Llewyn finishes, Grossman bluntly states, "I don't see any money in this." And it is this sentiment that lies at the core of every artist's problem in trying to gain recognition. For one can't establish oneself on a grand scale without financial backing and the belief that the investment will be made back many times over--which is, rather obviously, an absurd and narrow-minded way to view someone's art.
What the Coen brothers are trying to say with Inside Llewyn Davis is not entirely concrete. On the one hand, the conclusion of the film can be interpreted to mean that all artists should just give and spare themselves the shame and indignity of continuing to try. But on the other hand, how do you not keep going when it's so ingrained in you? When it's the only skill you have and the only thing you're truly interested in? In this way, it is simultaneously one of the most demotivating and galvanizing films you may ever see.