There is a part of me that must believe the Coens aren’t surprised, either. We’re talking about a film whose (arguable) climax comes when F. Murray Abraham’s nightclub owner looks Llewyn Davis up and down and says, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” He says this in response to Llewyn’s performance of a ballad about the death of one of Henry the VIII’s wives, something which even as performed does not scream “hit single. It’s surpassingly beautiful, much like the film it’s in. But it isn’t enough, it’s never enough.
The central question for our stubborn troubadour throughout is whether worldly success matters more than artistic integrity. As Glenn Kenny described in his review at RogerEbert.com, this is clear much earlier in the film when Llewyn is eyeing his onetime colleagues with disdain:
After his own song, Troy invites Jean and Jim up to sing with him, and they do a nice version of “Five Hundred Miles.” Llewyn does his level best to enjoy them, but soon the audience starts singing along, and Llewyn furrows his brow a little and looks behind him with wordless incredulity. The place he thought he understood, the place he thought he was part of, is becoming alien to him. And he doesn’t understand why.
Ultimately Llewyn seems to decide against any degree of selling out. I think the movie is clear on that being a snob’s choice, and one which probably dooms Llewyn himself to the Merchant Marine. It is also clear that Llewyn’s lack of wide appeal has little bearing on his “talent,” considered alone. Just listen to Oscar Isaac’s solo rendition of “Fare Thee Well” from the soundtrack, and regardless of personal taste, c’mon, it absolutely displays talent:
If I could sing and play like that, even just alone in my house, I might think it was worth preserving too, whatever the “public” thought. Or whether I won an Academy Award for it, I’m saying.
After all: much ink is spilled every year in re: what a terrible, morally and intellectually bankrupt spectacle the Oscars are. They tend to be a night about celebrity rather than about what’s really vital or beautiful in art. Just look at a list of recent Best Picture winners and ask yourself if that’s what you think people are going to remember, movie-wise, from the last 20 years. But the truth is, it ever was and will be thus. It is the most infuriating paradox there is, in creative life, this total lack of relationship between what the world loves and what is actually good and worthwhile in art. The Oscars is just its loudest embodiment.
So when a film like Llewyn Davis gets snubbed, it’s not really an insult in the ordinary sense of the word. If it had won a ton of Oscars, if it had simply ascended to the podium as the obvious frontrunner for Best Picture, an unqualified triumph, that would have somehow felt wrong. Like the movie managed, through sheer craftmanship, to be something that Llewyn himself never could: a truly popular piece of art. If it was that easy to pull off such a maneuver, there would never have been an Inside Llewyn Davis in the first place.