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.