Being an artist is tough not only because of the usual conundrums he has to face—lack of a clearly defined career path, the serrated and unpredictable trajectory—but also because what others think about what he does, the kind of people he meets day in, day out. It also doesn’t help that most perceptions about his ‘job’ are ridiculously simplified – that his life is smooth because he’s following his passion or “life in showbiz is easy. One hit can fix you up.” Everyone knows what he’s doing or at least assumes to, and everyone has an opinion about it. You would not see Engineers, Doctors, or Civil Servants face a torrent of such unsolicited, patronizing advices. Maybe that’s the price one has to pay for practicing a profession that’s not only in the public eye but is also a profession, which is seemingly accessible enough for others to be convinced that they know better. This facet of a struggling artist’s frustration is seldom documented and discussed, and it’s this fine note that Coen brothers strike quite effortlessly throughout in their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis.
Times are rough for Llewyn Davis. To begin with, he’s homeless, but unfortunately that’s not one of his biggest concerns. He wants to make it as a musician but roadblocks abound. He’s into folk music, which doesn’t have a lot of takers. Even on personal front, he’s hardly afloat – his relationship with his sister, friend, and father is turbulent. Davis can’t turn any corner and say with certainty that he’s come home. Searching for a home—both personally and professionally—becomes Davis’ recurring concern throughout the film: a place where he will be most comfortable, a place that’s both welcoming and comforting. But, currently, it’s a place that always eludes Davis.
What’s particularly striking about Davis’ journey and consequently this film is the fashion in which the side characters illuminate Davis. Coens have a habit of populating their films—especially the ones centred on an eponymous character—with memorable peripheral characters who not only bring us closer to the protagonist but also help us see him in a consummate manner. Be it Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, or in this film. And although you would be hard pressed to precisely define what Davis’ relationship with people in his life is, you see a man who’s trying to figure out his life in ways more than one. For instance, consider his relationship with Jean (Carey Mulligan), we learn that he has possibly impregnated her and she showers him with nothing but bilious invectives, but their relationship is still marked by tenderness, which becomes a little apparent at the end of the film. His relationship with his sister, too, is similarly difficult to pin down. But, it’s through these nebulous relationships that the film shines, underscoring Davis’ predicament.
A story about a struggling artist often comes with its own set of unwritten rules, or cliches if you will. The artist is often enslaved to angst, substance abuse, feeling of betrayal. There’s a sense of betrayal in Inside Llewyn Davis too, but Coens keep it astutely latent. In fragments, we see a life Davis could have lived—of personal stability—a turn that he could have taken, a life of professional stability (joining merchant marine) that perhaps still awaits him. But, it’s also a life that Davis is not keen to embrace because he thinks that people who are not into showbiz—probably construed as people who just let life happen to them—merely “exist”. And, Davis’ angst really comes out when he’s pushed by them to perform, to ‘put up a show’. He bursts with unquenched anger on one particular time; he says this is his job. He makes a living out of it. Why should what he does be mentioned in casual, frivolous tones?
As the film unfolds, you slowly get a sense that Davis is moving away. Not only from the select few he knows, but also from what he really likes doing. But, Coens don’t hand this to you on a platter. There’s no conventional arc to Davis’ character or to the story. Also, how much can you really change in a span of 7 days? But, there’s also something else that the movie is trying to say. What makes people in arts stick, even when they are going through incessant rejections and humiliating penury? If Davis’ story is any indication, it’s primarily a question of when, a question of hanging in there for one final time, which could probably prove worthwhile and rest all your concerns. But, before you realize this, you are stuck in a loop. This running around in circle becomes your life.
This is again something that’s difficult to execute in a film because it would invariably involve using a clumsy expositionary device. Coens surmount this problem by employing an ingenious structure. How? By not ending the film. If you think about it, it doesn’t begin either. We witness 7 days of Llewyn Davis’ life, which will repeat itself encompassing all hues — the guilt, disappointment, rejection, betrayal, a glimmer of hope. He’s stuck and perhaps doesn’t know what to do about it. And although Davis’ folk songs might not have a lot of takers in the market, there will be certainly some waiting for him at the Gaslight Cafe. But, there are no quick exits. It wasn’t supposed to be easy.