I wrote this review in 2016, when I first watched Inside Llewyn Davis, but my thoughts on the film in the years since have changed little, if only improved.
Spoilers for Inside Llewyn Davis. That is, if it is possible to spoil a film like this.
Inside Llewyn Davis is one of those films that people talk about like: “Oh I heard that was good, I really wanted to see that.” I once said to a friend: “Oscar Isaac is great, but I feel like he hasn't had a definitive performance yet, though I haven't seen Inside Llewyn Davis yet, so I could be wrong.”
(Yes pretentious past Bryan, you were wrong.)
The film was released in December, 2013, but even as a Coen Brothers fan, Inside Llewyn Davis didn't quite pique my interest enough to get me to crawl out to see it in the cinema. My roommate saw it. He loved it and told me so. He gave me a copy of the soundtrack, which I spooled through once and then forgot about. I did want to see it, just not enough to, well, go see it.
That year at the Oscars, Inside Llewyn Davis was nominated in two categories: Cinematography and Sound Mixing. It won neither. It didn't win any awards at the places most people would recognize. By and large, the response was positive, yet muted. Something about Inside Llewyn Davis made it precisely the kind of film that would be passed over, missed, and yet revered by the few who saw it. It took me three years. I finally watched Inside Llewyn Davis in late October, 2016. I am still reeling.
Much has been said about a certain central scene – permit me to say a little more – Llewyn bums a ride from New York to Chicago, wanders through the cold and the snow, all to get before Bud Grossman, a music manager who makes careers, an almost godlike figure. Llewyn proceeds to play a somber, old song, almost four hundred years old. The Death of Queen Jane.
I have seen other reviewers point out what a strange, e.g. terrible song choice this is from Llewyn's perspective. He has this one chance to prove himself and he picks a slow, somber piece about death. I have seen them write this off as just part of Llewyn's self destructive nature. Yet I feel there is more to this choice than that. From my own minor dabbling in music, and what I have seen of solo performers, it can be strikingly hard to pick “the right song” when put on the spot. Your entire repertoire seems to fade away as you sit there; your audience attentive, waiting. The decision seems to be something utterly subconscious, almost out of one's control. Perhaps a performer more expedient than Llewyn would have a better intuition, but is he really so wrong? He sits before an audience of one, in a dark building on a damp Chicago winter morning. Would something more jaunty and upbeat really seem fitting?
Most modes of artistic expression have moments analogous to this. The moment you must “do your thing,” when the entire atmosphere seems to be demanding the opposite tone from your work. So much is outside of your control. It isn't like practicing at home. It's not like watching your film in the editing room. Standing in front of three producers and a casting director isn't like taping an audition at home.
There is so much beyond your control, and yet in that moment of bewilderment you must somehow find the capacity within to be vulnerable, expressive, and charismatic. Llewyn picks the only song he can. He picks what he truly feels in that moment. He puts everything out there. What more can an artist do when given the chance to perform before someone who can make or break a career? What more can Llewyn do but give the best, most honest expression of what his work is like? If Grossman doesn't like it, well then there's nothing to it.
Thus, when Bud Grossman commands “play me something from Inside Llewyn Davis,” he does. He plays The Death of Queen Jane. I think this song and this scene might encompass the whole film. It is a simple piece, beautiful and elegiac. I lack the vocabulary or musicology to describe it, but it kills me every time.
But there's no money in it, says Bud Grossman. I can identify with Llewyn, hopefully I am not such a curmudgeon as he. (If I'm honest, I have nothing to complain about.) But like Llewyn, sometimes I feel that all I am trying to do is break out of the loop of sameness, to reach some higher artistic plain – to have one's work recognized, its value acknowledged in some way or another. The sad thing is I didn't recognize the value of The Death of Queen Jane at the outset. I loved the film. I even loved the scene; the lighting, the restraint of the camera, the performances. The song itself, I glossed over. Only after weeks of skipping over it in the soundtrack did I finally let it play and realize just what I had been missing out on. I was skipping over Llewyn's soul.
It dawned on me, it would be absurd for Inside Llewyn Davis to be a runaway success. I picture Joel and Ethan Coen going up to accept some award. Joel delivers the speech, Ethan chuckles in spite of himself, taking in the irony of it all. Or let us imagine Llewyn himself receiving some great, career defining award. He sheepishly saunters to the mic, “geeze guys, this is really unexpected.” It is a ridiculous image, totally outside the spirit of the film, the character, and his music.
At the end of the film, we do not know what comes of Llewyn's career. I imagine it would not be very different from my reaction to the film's release.
“Oh, I heard that was good. I wanted to see that.”