Spoiler Alerts: crucial elements of a movie are about to be revealed.
Inside Llewyn Davis is about a folk singer trying, not very successfully, to make it in early 1960s Greenwich Village. Llewyn is a lost man trapped inside a beastly world where its unremittingly bad karma pounds down particularly for him. He is a loser who keeps on losing. We toil with Llewyn, just hoping he has a warm coat and someone will answer the doorbell when he rings.
This really is an almost purely poetic film, based on image and especially sound. Cars whooshing by, the ambient crunch of snow as he ploughs on, the lacerations of the howling, freezing wind as he shudders and shivers. Not forgetting the awesome soundtrack. We understand Llewyn not so much based on what he says but by the visual cues, his songs, and character traits.
‘This is a brilliant anti-Oscar film with an unsympathetic hero, set against a washed-out New York, a historical time period with no flash or cash or swagger….The qualities that made it so memorable and affecting have counted against it; the films that are nominated reveal what Inside Llewyn Davis is not.‘
– Tim Teeman The Daily Beast. Read more here.
I am of the opinion like some others that the whole movie represents Llewyn’s solo album, Inside Llewyn Davis. Every meeting in the film, with friends, family, and strangers is like a song from his album. They seem to be snippets/moments as a product or reaction of their time like songs are to a folk album in this case Llewyn Davis’ solo record. The musical trio performing Please Mr Kennedy gives some sense to this. Coen Brothers have transported us to a hub of musical history, an almost visceral musical landscape from the point of view of a largely unknown and relatively unsuccessful musical artist.
“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”
The fight scene shown as the second scene of the movie is shown again to us (with slight editing changes) in its correct place as the penultimate scene before Llewyn says “Au revoir” which means ‘to see again’ or ‘until we meet again’. The ending seems to suggest the record is on a loop or we have turned the record over and placed the needle down again only this time, we have the added knowledge of having already listened to the songs. We have grown to the know the artist. The second listen is illuminated by that knowledge and our watching/listening experience changes (evidence that the same scene is shown with slight alterations) because of that knowledge.
This record analogy, playing it over again, isn’t exactly conventional storytelling- in fact it may not even be storytelling. But this is the Coen brothers, and they ain’t interested in convention.
And finally … THE CATS
Llewyn calls Columbia to inform Goldstien that he has his cat, the secretary says:
“Tell him, ‘Llewyn is THE cat”.
Their are mainly two lines of thought regarding the significance of the two cats in the movie, but they can both be interpreted equally as valid but from different levels of meaning.
The popular line is that the cats represent the meandering, lost Llewyn Davis and the quote above ‘Llewyn is the cat’ may be the Coen’s way of signalling this to us. Also the cat’s name is Ulysses, similar to Clooney in O’Brother Where Art Thou. In both, the name is a reference to the Odyssey. Llewyn even looks inquisitively at a movie poster ‘Homeward Bound’, which is curiously out of place since it was released in 1963. But it could be and probably is deliberate. By 1963 Dylan had taken the folk movement to a place noone had foreseen. Is this Llewyn glimpsing into this future and later on seeing it with his very own eyes at the Gaslight, but he is too consumed by his own preoccupations and aloofness to pay it any mind?
Another dual meaning of the cats is that they somewhat correspond to the two babies he intent on having aborted. Llewyn ended up with these two cats without any intention of having or keeping them, just like the two babies. One cat got away (like his first baby that is now 2 years old) and the other got wounded and probably killed by his car (corresponding to his second baby about to be aborted). The wounding of the second cat occurs just after he passes the highway exit to the city where his first baby lives, no thanks to him. This isn’t a coincidence.
1. An interesting interview – Academy Conversations: “Inside Llewyn Davis” :
I liked how someone mentioned in the You tube comments:
‘Oscar Isaac is a rare bird–an actor who actually is intelligent, insightful, and interesting in an interview. Most actors, even great ones, are a real bore. This guy has substance.’
Couldn’t agree more re Oscar Isaac based on all the interviews I have seen of him. I like how he quotes Bukowski’s ‘Bluebird‘.