January 12, 2014 Trapped “Inside Llewyn Davis”
The end of “Inside Llewyn Davis” left me and my friends scratching our heads. The ending scene mirrors the film’s opening where Llewyn is beaten in an alley. My friends and I had to quickly rewatch a few scenes of the screener we were viewing to try and make sense of it. Was the whole movie a flashback? Was it a flash forward? What happened to the cat? What the heck was the point of a movie that leaves its protagonist in the gutter? Questions lead to more questions and few answers until one of us decided that this whole movie was a result of John Goodman’s character’s Santeria voodoo which put Llewyn in an ever repeating time loop.
The more I tried to figure out the movie, the more I realized how engrossing the film was and how unlikeable Llewyn is. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is the Coen brothers’ homage to the folk music scene of the 1960s. Oscar Davis plays Llewyn as he struggles to succeed as a solo artist and as a human being. The film slowly reveals how difficult of a person he is to befriend. He has few prospects for success and spends his nights sleeping on the couches of anyone who will oblige, and the number of people willing to oblige becomes fewer and fewer.
Initially, he stays with Jim and Jean, a married couple played by Justin Timberlake and a nearly unrecognizable Carrie Mulligan. Both are fantastic in this movie. Timberlake shows his talent for performing, whether singing and acting. Mulligan is perfectly exasperated and frustrated as JT’s wife and Llewyn’s impregnated lover. Oh yeah, Llewyn got his friend’s wife pregnant.
As the film continues, his personality continues to alienate more and more people. He loses the cat belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Gorfein, his late singing partner’s parents and lashes out at them during a dinner party. We learn that he has another illegitimate child in Akron from the doctor who was supposed to perform the abortion but didn’t because his then-girlfriend changed her mind but didn’t tell Llewyn that she kept the child. I began to wonder why he didn’t seek help from his family and then the film reveals that he hardly ever visits his father in the retirement home and visits to his sister only result in fighting. During his odyssey, he meets John Goodman’s character, a jazz musician named Roland Turner. Turner’s not very easy to get along with either and Llewyn eventually abandons him on the side of a road in the middle of the night.
There’s a long list of people who don’t like Llewyn. Yet the audience is rooting for him. We want him to succeed. He’s a talented singer and although irritating, not an irredeemable person. We want him to impress the agent in Chicago. We want his journey to be fruitful. It’s sad when Llewyn decides to give up music to become a merchant marine, but his own sloppiness even sabotages that effort. And, in typical Llewyn fashion, he attacks other people for his misfortune. But in the end, we get Llewyn where he began. Talented, penniless and waving goodbye to the man who just beat him.
It was then that I realized that Ulysses the cat and Llewyn are foils for each other. Llewyn spends the initial part of the movie caring for Ulysses. It got out of the apartment when Llewyn left, and then ran away from him. Llewyn finds the cat again, but then it’s revealed it’s not Ulysses. It’s just a random cat that looked like him. Ulysses, like his namesake, finds his way home on his own. Ulysses and Llewyn are on their own journeys, their own odysseys, but only one makes it home. When Ulysses the cat returns to his home, it signals completion. Llewyn’s journey is bookmarked by the same place too – the alley where he is beaten. The scene bookends the films, but for Llewyn his return to the point of origin is not a sign of completion; it’s a sign of stagnation. The movie ends, the audience moves on, but Llewyn will always be stuck in an alley just outside the music scene where he so desperately wants success.
Llewyn can’t seem to do anything right, but the Coens have. Give “Llewyn” a chance. He could use a break.