Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) is one of the few movies that I’ve finished and then immediately started watching again. Here, the Coen Brothers have crafted a intimate film about one man’s inability to connect to those around him and his consequent sysiphian struggle to make any headway in his life (or is it the other way around?).
The film begins at The Gaslight Café in 1961, and we’re treated to a performance: folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” Once the performance is over, the manager tells him he has a friend outside waiting for him. A friend? We learn later on that, really, Llewyn doesn’t have any friends, and certainly none that would just be waiting outside. Stepping outside, we see a man in silhouette. Suddenly the realistic smoky light of the performance is replaced by something a bit more stylistic and certainly more threatening. The man gives Llewyn a bit of a beating and walks away.
In the next scene, Llewyn wakes up at the Gorfein’s (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), an older, academic couple who has befriended Llewyn, probably because of his novelty as a folk singer. Llewyn resents this, though it’s hard to see how he could support himself without their brand of commission (and they are not the only ones of their type who latch on to Llewyn and whom he begrudgingly “performs” for). Llewyn wanders around the Gorfein’s apartment in the morning after they’ve left; he is obviously alien but enjoying some peace in the moment. When he finally does leave, the Gorfein’s cat slips out the door with him, the door is locked, and now Llewyn is stuck with a cat who will, we see, have his own incredible journey, one perhaps more successful than Llewyn’s.
I could go through this movie scene by scene, character-by-character — it’d be worth it to me to ruminate that way, and I’d still only scratch the surface — but here I want to reign myself in a bit and focus on the mythic aspects of the film, the aspects that link this film more with Barton Fink and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
In many ways, the film is set up as a kind of journey of the soul with parallels in Llewyn’s literal journey around points in Manhattan, to Chicago, and then back to Greenwich Village for the final scene. It’s an odyssey, and as such it’s somewhat episodic as various characters enter and exit Llewyn’s life.
Principally, we meet Jean (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake). They are also folk singers, and maybe Llewyn sees them as sell-outs. They have a home he often sleeps in, after all, perhaps they’ve given up the genuine struggle of the soul, necessary for artists in Llewyn’s mind, in order to get some material comfort.
Just after he leaves the Gorfein’s, Llewyn takes the cat to Jean and Jim’s home, just as a safe place. When he goes back to retrieve the cat, Jean is furious. Why’s there a cat here? And, no, Llewyn you cannot sleep here tonight. And, also, I’m pregnant. Jean does not know if Jim or Llewyn is the father. If it’s Jim’s, she wants it. If it’s Llewyn’s, she wants to abort it. Since there is no way of knowing, she feels there is no other alternative but to abort the pregnancy.
One criticism I’ve heard of the film is that Jean is shrill. There’s no doubt that Jean is absolutely furious with Llewyn. She hates him. But, to me, it appears that it’s a hatred born of love and passion. Jim is a wonderful man, truly generous and kind in every scene we see him in. But perhaps Jean feels more passionately toward Llewyn, definitely in hatred, but also perhaps in love. Her vitriol is directed at Llewyn, but I think it’s all the more intense because she loves him.
Nevertheless, that train has left the station, and this is laid out nicely in another of the film’s great music scenes, where Jean and Jim sing “Five Hundred Miles”:
If you missed the train I’m on
You will know that I am gone
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles
Not a shirt on my back
Not a penny to my name
Lord, I can’t go back home this ole way.
The number ties in nicely with Llewyn’s own unmoored journey through life, his failed relationships (with Jean and others), and also with the links to the Odyssey.
Llewyn feels his best shot at getting out of his rut is to travel to Chicago and, hopefully, get a gig with producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). On the way, he splits gas money with Roland Turner (in another fine performance from John Goodman), a jazz musician with his own problems, but at least he seems to have a successful career. Up to this point in the film we’ve heard mentions of Llewyn’s old music partner, Mike Timlin, and we know Mike is dead. Llewyn is still in shock, though he’s been trying to move on to the solo scene. Here we get a bit more of the story, and a glimpse at the other-worldly power of Roland Turner. Llewyn tells Roland that Mike jumped off the George Washington Bridge, and Roland simply says:
George Washington Bridge? You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge, traditionally. George Washington Bridge? Who does that?
The whole trip to Chicago is strange and otherworldly, kind of like Llewyns passage into the underworld. After an argument, Roland Turner tells Llewyn that he doesn’t need to physically best Llewyn; he has cursed Llewyn. It might not be for years, but some day Llewyn is going to wake up and wonder why his life is so terrible. It’s kind of like Goodman is reprising his role as (maybe) the Devil from Barton Fink, capable of supernatural powers. Of course, it’s not necessary to go that far: Roland can see that Llewyn already thinks his life is terrible, and he’s got no qualms pointing it out.
The meeting with Bud Grossman goes poorly, and Llewyn continues to wander in his own personal hell.
Which brings me to the point I want to focus on, and this requires me to discuss the ending of the film. So, if you’re not already wary of spoilers, let me warn you.
When the meeting in Chicago goes poorly, it’s sort of the end of the line. I love how Richard Brody put it here: “Davis is, in effect, condemned to return to his life, to New York, to face the same travails all over again.” But first, perhaps we see a glimmer of hope. He makes up with the Gorfein’s (I didn’t describe the awful fight they had), and goes back to the Gaslight to perform a truly heartfelt rendition of “Fare Thee Well.”
He steps off the stage, the manager tells him his friend is waiting outside, and there’s the man in the hat waiting to beat Llewyn — again? And, thus, the end is the beginning, on and on, maybe for years. Some great detective work has led some to suspect the year is now 1963 (that’s the year The Incredible Journey came out, and its poster is seen in the film; that’s also the year Bob Dylan recorded his own song “Farewell,” which he’s singing at the Gaslight as Llewyn steps out to see that friend). There are other clues that this end is slightly different from the beginning, and all of it leads to a wonderful effect.
Sure, this could be Llewyn’s curse, brought on by Roland Turner (and maybe plenty of others), condemning Llewyn to life, wandering the streets of New York, an unknown, with a cat who does make it home. Llewyn’s own lines suggest this: “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”
He also says, “I’m tired. I thought I just needed a night’s sleep, but it’s more than that.”
And maybe Bud Grossman’s advice is Llewyn’s only escape. When Grossman suggests Llewyn join a group of musicians rather than go solo, Llewyn says no, he already had a partner. Grossman says, “My suggestion: get back together.” Llewyn’s response: “That’s good advice.”
Perhaps Llewyn is already dead. When he wakes up at the Gorfein’s home, Mozart’s Requiem is playing in the background. And then there are the great lines from the first song we heard, “Hang Me, Oh, Hang Me”:
Hang me, oh, hang me, I’ll be dead and gone.
Hang me, oh, hang me, I’ll be dead and gone.
I wouldn’t mind the hanging, but the laying in the grave so long
Poor boy, I’ve been all around this world.
Is this what it’s like to lie in the grave so long? At any rate, doomed to pass this blank stage of his life again and again, Llewyn is no longer Odysseus but Sisyphus, repeating the struggle forever. Llewyn’s last words, as he watches the man in the hat drive off, are “au revoir.”
But, of course, again we don’t need to take this all that far and assume the tale of Llewyn Davis is some kind of actual curse. It’s the feeling. The Coens are not, I don’t think, making this man’s tale a myth; rather, they are utilizing myth to emphasize the very real struggle of Llewyn Davis, and others like him, who, despite his flaws and his general misanthropy, doesn’t seem to deserve the seemingly never-ending struggle that comes when one cannot place oneself in this world.
It’s a dark film, textured, layers, all those great words that you use when you could watch the same film over and over again and keep seeing new things.