Llewyn Davis is a tough guy to love. He keeps everyone at a distance and perpetually disappoints those who do care about him with his cynical attitude and selfish behavior. It can, at first, feel like the Coen brothers’ film about him follows his own sensibilities too closely. “Inside Lllewyn Davis” showcases brilliant filmmaking technique, but it’s emotionally guarded and seems to enjoy making Davis, a folk singer/guitarist, as unsympathetic as possible. I left the theater feeling a little detached from the experience.
A weird thing happened over the next few days, though: I couldn’t stop thinking about the film. The more I picked at it, the more it unraveled itself through subtleties that build its themes into a profound character portrait. “Inside Llewyn Davis” may not give you the gut response you had hoped for initially, but if you allow it the proper time to sink in, you’ll discover a deeply affecting meditation on talent, ambition, opportunity, and grief.
The film follows Davis (Oscar Isaac) through a week or so during the early 1960’s in New York, when the American folk scene was about to experience a revival through artists like Bob Dylan. But the new audiences and possibilities that come with this revival aren’t for Davis, who spends most nights sleeping on friends’ couches unless he’s driving across the country for an audition. The film concerns itself with all the different ways in which Davis, through his own actions or through the decisions of others, can’t get the break he’s hoping for.
Davis loves his music and gives honest, skillful performances, but he’s unwilling to compromise his ideals thanks to his own stubbornness and his experiences with a former bandmate, which prevents him from seeing some success. The more uncomfortable and painful realization, though, is that Davis’ lack of success may not be solely his own fault. Some people just don’t make it.
Doing something for the love of it, without any financial incentive or compensation, is admirable. Passion for something like music can last a person a very long time, but it is tough to make it last forever. “Inside Llewyn Davis” shows the specific kind of frustrations that accompany the experience of working at something you love but not seeing the success you’d hoped for. It wears thin in a unique and destabilizing way, and the Coens have found its particular disappointments and depicted them with candidness and precision.
We are often told that good art will find an audience. This is not really true, and “Inside Llewyn Davis” feels especially relevant today given the rise of the internet as a means of sharing art without boundaries. Many artists have found success thanks to platforms like Youtube and bandcamp and soundcloud, but not all great artists have found the audience we promised them. As has always been the case, there are countless new opportunities for artists like Llewyn Davis, and countless new ways to go unnoticed.