One of the trite-but-truisms that any bright, bookish kid will inevitably hear is that The Catcher in the Rye must be read at three distinct intervals in life: when you’re Holden Caulfield’s peer group of easily-bruised, overly precocious teenagers; when you’re in your mid-to-late twenties and beginning to understand that a willingness to compromise doesn’t make you a capital P-phony, just someone who has to make their way in a world that doesn’t give a fuck about your desires and ambitions; and when you’re well into your forties, and you can laugh wryly and (more than a little) wistfully about who—and where—you thought you’d be back when there was no way you could’ve known better.
The Coen Brothers’ tale of a folk singer whose career withers on the vine at a time when so many other would-be Guthries are growing thick and fruitful serves as a cautionary tale and an elegy: It’s a groan through gritted teeth and the most resigned of sighs.
The narrative arc of the film may seem complex—it opens at its ending, with the titular character getting gut-punched by an anonymous man in an anonymous gray suit. Then it winds back through Llewyn’s unwinding, which includes losing the orange cat of his bougie benefactors, the Gorfeins; having to accept gigs from Jim, the husband of Jean, the woman he has feelings for; traveling to Chicago to audition for an influential folk manager; and playing one final show—opening for some kid named Dylan—before shipping off with the merchant marines; all the while mourning Mike, the partner whose immaculate baritone and apparent joviality couldn’t save him from a suicidal despair that pitched him off the George Washington Bridge.
But its story, its animating force, is straightforward: The solo career he was both forced into, and fought for, simply won’t happen for him. “I’m tired,” he tells Jean. But his exhaustion can’t be staved with coffee, sleep or cheap, sugary foods—the temporary ballasts of any creative. In most films about artists, the epiphany comes when our hero first watches audiences sway to his guitar and knows that he’s crossed over into something radical, ephemeral. For Llewyn Davis, the grand revelation is a cold vacuum: “I’m tired and it’s not going anywhere.”
Structurally, the film is an ouroboros, which suits its main character, a man who keeps biting himself in the ass. In many ways, he is the architect of his misfortunes, unwilling to see compromise as anything but surrender—which, ironically, compels him to leave music behind entirely. It’s tempting to view Jim as Llewyn does, as a capital-P phony; a middlebrow bantamweight who wastes his talent on frothy pop confections that wannabe bohemians like the Gorfeins’ friends drink up. “Look, I’m grateful for the gig,” Llewyn tells Jim after they’ve rehearsed the song, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a bouncy little ditty about a man terrified of being shot into outer space. And yet he can’t help but ask, in a tone betraying that he isn’t so grateful (not entirely), “Who wrote this?”
Many a critic has pegged Inside Llewyn Davis as the cinematic ballad of “a failed folk singer,” as if success—or, worse, actual talent—can only be defined by Llewyn’s record sales. But the film is keen to thwart such an interpretation, displaying its protagonist’s chops from the start: Haloed by a single spotlight, Llewyn launches into a version of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” that is as excruciatingly tender as a burgeoning bruise. When he sings, “I wouldn’t mind the hanging, just the layin’ in the grave so long/Poor boy, I been all around this world” his voice thrums with a transcendent ache. A brutal message is framed with a jangled, raw-boned elegance: No matter where we go or how far we get, we’ll never reach the Promised Land where we get to be truly successful, always fulfilled; the laying in the grave is so long.
The juxtaposition between Llewyn’s talent and his lack of commercial success makes the film especially poignant, and harrowingly prescient, for artists who feel more chewed-up than hungry, who’ve reached the age when referring to themselves as “aspiring” painters or writers or musicians only elicits a pitying smile and a question about their real job. We have precious few years when we can get away with believing—let alone announcing—ourselves to be “the voice of our generation” with the bright-eyed alacrity of, say, Girls’ Hannah Horvath, for whom a book deal or cushy magazine job is just a matter of the right essay discovered by the right editor at the right time.
A lesser, more obvious film would’ve aligned with Llewyn’s vision of Jim as phony, a hack. But in one of the movie’s early set pieces, a few scenes prior to the “Please Mr. Kennedy” jam session, we watch Jim and his wife Jean sing a devastatingly soulful version of “500 Miles” at the Gaslight Café. It’s implied, then, that Jim’s tenure as the leader of “the John Glenn singers” and (perhaps) many similar outfits, supports him and Jean. Jim likely figures—as any photographer who shoots weddings figures, or any poet who writes marketing copy figures—that, hey, it’s not ideal, but it’s close enough to his real art.
Close enough can pay the bills, but it can also be quicksand. Shortly before he makes his Chicago sojourn to see Bud Grossman, the influential manager he believes is his last, best shot at making it, Llewyn accuses Jean of selling out her artistry, succumbing to the siren song of suburbia: the death of a thousand white pickets, each one set down with the royalties from yet another insipid pop parody. “Don’t you ever think about the future?” she hisses back, even though she knows—and she knows he knows—the answer. Seeing music as a means to an end, he insists, is “careerist,” especially when that end is outside of the five boroughs. But this insistence is, of course, somewhat disingenuous: After all, Llewyn isn’t trekking to snowy Chicago for a handshake and an “atta boy” from Mr. Grossman.
Jean’s careerism is only loathsome to Llewyn because he wants nothing to do with the ends it serves. Jean writes his disdain off as a symptom of his Peter Pan syndrome—and for a time, the viewer does, too. Especially when Llewyn launches into the dour (if haunting) “The Death of Queen Jane,” (which includes a description of an ill-fated Caesarian) for his one shot with Grossman—and not, say, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” which showcases the full spectrum of his voice: thunderous and wry, rangy and earnest. Grossman concludes that, “there’s no money” in Llewyn as a solo act, but he offers him a part in a trio if he can trim his goatee down and “stay out of the sun.” This is Llewyn’s last chance to support himself with music. Not his music, but music. He says no.
The way that we view this action—wistfully Quixotic or evidence of Jean’s tart assertion that bad things happen to Llewyn because he “wants them to”—serves as a litmus test: Are we standing in a field of rye at the edge of the world, hoping to catch every innocent who veers near the precipice? Or have we decided that the comfortable tedium of the cubicle farm (or the adjunct offices, or the retail floor) is still better than the wildness of uncertainty? Llewyn has seen his father slog on under the expectations to earn a living wage, then buy a house, marry and raise kids—only to lose that house, that marriage and even the kids, to old age; all that time spent in service to something other than himself, only to end up shitting himself in a nursing home.
And yet, would this really be any less fulfilling than shucking and smiling through songs he hates? We shouldn’t be so quick to answer no: We live in a world where corporate doublespeak insists that we should “follow our passion to success.” Assuming, of course, that our passions can net a profit for—or even bring us to—the C-suite. Those of us who don’t aspire to a directorship, just a way to create and to live comfortably enough, are left to forge our own definitions of success. The film’s cyclical structure has been called dreamlike, but it’s more like a cold haze of repetition, something that anyone who has ever had to fit their passion into a few precious “off hours” has felt in their bones—a struggle that will never be new and will never get old; will never change.
Still, watching Llewyn abandon his calling for a day job, especially his father’s old gig, is like taking an axe to the chest. As viewers, we’re primed for the last-minute reprieve—the call from Grossman saying that he has a last-minute opening for a solo act, or for Bob Dylan to serve as a folkie ex machina and be suddenly inspired to take Llewyn on tour—but Inside Llewyn Davis forces its protagonist into making the choice that any working artist fears: the choice between selling out and giving up.
Llewyn’s decision is especially heartrending because the performer in him comes out, smiling and leaning into the “puh-puh-Please,” even when he’s singing drivel like “Please, Mr. Kennedy.” The joys of showmanship give him life, but not a livelihood. And this is the dichotomy that any working artist must reconcile. Most of us pick up a pen, or a guitar, or a paintbrush knowing that the odds of ending up on Oprah’s couch, on the cover of Pitchfork, or in the Whitney Biennial are not in our favor. Sure, we indulge in daydreams, but we know that the measure of our success is best gauged by the satisfaction that comes from devising an immaculate syntax or a fresh riff on an old sound.