<i>Inside Llewyn Davis</i> is structured like a folk song, with verses and choruses that we return to and build upon. The first go around I liked the music, the actors, the setting, and the lighting, but I didn’t quite grasp what it was all about. So...
When I first saw Inside Llewyn Davis, I missed the opening, so I didn’t realize that it has a circular pattern, that the first scene we see is the last scene we see, that this is a movie that tracks how Llewyn gets to the point of being beaten by a mysterious cowboy in a dark alley.
The film itself is structured like a folk song, with verses and choruses that we return to and build upon. The first go around I liked the music, the actors, the setting, and the lighting, but I didn’t quite grasp what it was all about. So, I watched it again and then a third time. Below are a few things I noticed that you can think about while watching, just some little tips that might help find some of these patterns and enjoy the movie even more.
First of all, the most obvious: Llewyn is the cat. The Coen brothers try to make this pretty damn clear through the dialogue—the way the cat is juxtaposed with Llewyn and the way the cat’s and Llewyn’s stories parallel. After the opening prolepsis scene where we watch Llewyn being beaten in an alley, the film cuts from Llewyn’s face back to a few days previous to, of all things, the ginger cat’s silky butt sashaying away from us down the hall and to a sleeping Llewyn on the couch. Then what do we see? Llewyn’s POV of the cat sitting on his chest, a close-up that links Llewyn and the little beast, face to face, a mirroring (notice Llewyn’s (the human) furry face).
Then what happens? Both Llewyn and the cat are locked out of the Gorfeins’ apartment and sent into the wilds of New York, circa 1961, accompanied by the mournful strains of the song, “Fare Thee Well,” that is ostensibly the song that Llewyn sang with his former partner Mike, who we will learn killed himself by jumping off the Washington bridge. Then we see Llewyn on a pay phone leaving a message for Professor Gorfein, and the secretary on the line mistakes his message that he has the cat as, “Llewyn is the cat.” He corrects her, but the mistake gives us a hint at Llewyn’s connection to the cat.
I suppose the cat could also be read as the spirit of Llewyn’s dead partner, Mike, because so much of the film is about mourning the loss of loved ones. But later we learn the beast’s real name is Ulysses—the great wanderer—who spent ten years at war and then another ten years on the sea before returning home to his wife and son, a story the Coen’s have already appropriated once for their seminal film, Oh Brother Where Art Thou? This name creates parallels in the film with both Homer’s story, as well as James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom who, like Llewyn, the audience follows for a single, epic day. In fact, we spend a few days with Llewyn, but they all bleed together. And as you’ll see there are plenty of other parallels with multiple Ulysses figures and Llewyn: homeless drifting; sea faring (Llewyn worked in the merchant marine); references to the sea and water, especially in the songs; and Llewyn has a child he has never seen.
As with many Coen brothers films, the music is the thing. This is a movie of songs, and all the songs speak to Llewyn’s plight. It kicks off with Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.”, Like the cat, this song references both Llewyn and Mike, his dead partner: Mike as a case of suicide, and Llewyn as a wandering man fighting against the world. Next we hear, “Fare Thee Well,” about a lost lover (there will be several songs that explore this subject) that relates to Llewyn’s relationships with both Mike and his former lover Jill, played by Carey Mulligan. This is also the last song sung by Llewyn in the film, right before we see and hear a ghostly Bob Dylan singing one more farewell song, all underscoring the idea that this is a film about loss—the drama of which is told through the music.
Then there are two songs in a row about lost lovers: “The Last Thing on My Mind,” and “Five Hundred Miles,” (sung by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), which are very much about Llewyn’s loss of Jill, who was pregnant, possibly by Llewyn, but who also wants an abortion. It’s not clear why Jill hooked up with Llewyn in the first place, because she seems to hate him and love Jim (Justin Timberlake) but her vacillation between the two is a dramatization of the third theme of the film: art versus business, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
The last important song of the film (after a fun romp called, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” also about potential loss) is “The Death of Queen Jane,” which Llewyn plays for his big audition at The Gate of Horn. It is about the death of a woman in childbirth, something very close to Llewyn’s heart because of the two pregnancies he has been involved in throughout the film. The owner of the club tells Llewyn that he doesn’t see much money in the song, underscoring the idea that Llewyn is an artist who can sing beautifully about his pain but can’t turn such things into profit.
Jill tells Llewyn that everything he touches turns to shit, that he should wear a body condom so that he doesn’t touch others, and then immediately after this says that she misses his old partner, Mike. The implication is that Llewyn either had something to do with Mike’s suicide, Mike being the one person that Llewyn ostensibly did connect with, or that Llewyn is contemplating “giving up” on the art hustle as Mike did. But as Llewyn tells his sister, if he were to live without doing his art, then he would just be existing,andthat he would be like his father, a washed-up sailor from the Merchant Marine. So, Llewyn is in the middle; he can choose to be an artist and suffer, or be responsible for himself and sail, as his father did before him, and possibly end up sitting alone in a room, wetting himself.
During their argument at the Reggio Café, Llewyn criticizes Jill for being commercially minded while she calls him a loser because he can’t support himself with his art. This is the artist’s dilemma, any artist’s dilemma, and certainly artists working within the counterculture, the dilemma being: How does one make art that is daring and still make a living?
Later we discover that Jill will even sleep with the manager of the great village venue, The Gaslight, in order to secure a spot to play in front of a Times reporter. Llewyn ends up in the gutter at the end, beaten by the cowboy and frivolously willed the sludge of New York, including the folk scene. He seems resigned to his role as the hardcore touchstone of folk music, even if he will never get fame or money for his efforts, a fact made obvious by the nasally delicious whines of young Dylan crooning from the bar, the musician who will certainly eclipse Llewyn’s efforts.
The answer—or at least an example of a possible answer—to it all of is the Coens who, somehow, from Blood Simple through their latest work have been able to behave as true artists, making the work they want to make and having great success along the way. They can have their cakes and eat them too, partly because each cake is different and tasty in its own way, yet familiar enough that you innately know they’re all from the same bakery on the first taste.