Llewyn Davis is not a bad guy.
The people who actually know him might tell you different, and they’d be justified. He’s self-absorbed, sarcastic, and occasionally just plain mean. But he’s not a bad guy. He’s sad, he’s haunted, he’s broken. He’s missing something that he’ll never be able to recover, something that made him a whole person. And the worst part is that he already knows all these things. This movie isn’t pushing him towards realization, it’s following him through despair. It’s a bleak story with no real conclusion. It’s also the best film of the year.
It all hinges on the actor playing Llewyn, really. He’s in practically every frame of the movie, and if he can’t sell Llewyn’s central dichotomy, the movie won’t work. Llewyn has to be a jerk, but a defeated one. If you don’t feel for Llewyn, you won’t connect with the movie. Oscar Isaac is more than up for the job, and he makes Llewyn one of the richest characters that the Coen brothers have ever created. The movie tells you next to nothing about his past, but you still feel like you know everything about him. It’s a character study masquerading as a dark comedy. One thing it isn’t trying to hide, though, is how layered it is.
Inside Llewyn Davis plays more like a text than a movie. Every scene is filled to the brim with subtext and metaphor, but never in a way that feels deliberately cryptic. In fact, the Coens lay out their central metaphor blatantly in the first ten minutes of the movie. One throwaway line turns out to be vital to the film’s central conceit. The Coens really like doing this. They don’t dwell on the most meaningful aspects of the story. At least, not until the end, when they start putting pieces together. That makes the movie sound like it’s very mysterious and hard to understand, but it’s really not. It’s a smart movie, and undeniably entertaining, but it’s also rich and meaningful. It doesn’t survive on the weight of its metaphor alone, but deciphering all those little details makes the film a much more rewarding experience. It’s hard to talk about those details, unfortunately, because it’s better to have conversations about them on your own. Suffice to say that this film has a lot more in common with O Brother, Where Art Thou? than the prevalence of diegetic music.
Speaking of which, you can’t have a review of this film without talking about the music. Much like the character study aspect of the film, the music is far more congruous with the story and the characters than it might seem. After all, these are all traditional folk songs. They weren’t written (except in one fantastic instance) specifically for the film. The Coens make it seem like they were, though, and not in a labored and insincere way. The opening scene of the film has Llewyn singing a heartfelt rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” and it’s a perfect primer for his personality. “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 hangin’, but the laying in the grave so long, poor boy/I’ve been all around this world.” When he sings that last line, you can tell that he means it. He might as well have written it himself. This sort of synergy goes right to the heart of the film. When Carey Mulligan’s character Jean sings the line, “Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name. Lord, I can’t go back home this-a way,” she gives Llewyn a meaningful look. Their relationship is both hateful and caring. They had some romantic relationship in the past, and it clearly ended badly. Jean despises Llewyn, but she she can’t help but be concerned about him. He tells her not to worry about him, and she replies, “With you, I worry.” He tells her that she shouldn’t. “Yes I should! God knows you never do.” The look on her face is one of contempt, and she thinks she’s insulting him, but you don’t use those words towards a person you hate. When she sings that line and gives him that look, she means to steer him away and help him at the same time. Their relationship is contradictory, but deeply felt. And when Llewyn sings “The Death of Queen Jane” later on in the film, it’s clear who he’s really singing about.
And then there’s the scene that everyone’s talking about, the “Please Mr. Kennedy” scene. It’s hilarious, memorable, and insanely catchy. You can find it online, but I encourage you not to listen to it until you see the film. It’ll spoil the surprise. This is the only song that was written specifically for the film, although the title is taken from a similar novelty song from around the same time. That one was about farmers, but this one’s about space travel. It seems like a great stroke of luck when Llewyn is invited by his friend Jim (husband to Jean) to fill an empty seat in the recording session. Of course, Llewyn’s not a lucky man, and even this positive turn of fortune ends with cruel irony. “Please Mr. Kennedy” isn’t a good song, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be the kind of cheesy crap that you write to make a quick buck. In real life, “Please Mr. Kennedy” hit #1. It’s the kind of song that’s antithetical to the music that Llewyn defines himself by, so of course it’s going to be immensely successful. The final scene of the film also foreshadows the end of the folk movement, in a great way which I won’t spoil.
None of those songs come close to the narrative significance of this one, however. Not too long after the opening scene, we hear a recording of Llewyn and his former partner Mikey singing “Fare Thee Well,” another traditional song. This one’s about a man pining for his lost love. The full extent of Llewyn’s split with Mikey isn’t revealed until about halfway through the film, and there’s nothing romantic implied, but you can tell that they were very important to each other, and the end of that partnership hangs over the entire film. Llewyn doesn’t have someone to lean against, to restrain him, to complete him artistically, and he’s collapsing. “Life ain’t worth livin’ without the one you love,” they croon. It’s telling, then, that this film about an artist who can’t succeed without his partner was made by the Coen brothers, arguably one of the most successful cinematic duos in history. Is the film an exploration of their need for each other? It’s a great read of the film, one that Matt Singer explores in much more detail in an op-ed for The Dissolve.
Normally in a review this positive, this is the point where I’d explain the film’s flaws. But honestly, I can’t think of any. There’s a long section of the film which covers Llewyn taking a trip to Chicago, and it tends to drag, but the payoff of the trip excuses that. It turns into yet another cruel joke that the universe plays on Llewyn. And because we feel like we sat through that car trip with him, the joke is on us as well. And…yeah, that’s about it. A film that’s this dense and complex in its themes and metaphors might be expected to stumble at some point. Inside Llewyn Davis is consistent in its greatness. There’s not a single moment that doesn’t feel necessary, not a scene that doesn’t work. It’s a film that only true masters of the craft could make, and no one could doubt that Joel and Ethan Coen are masters indeed. If this film doesn’t prove it, what does?
And then we come to the ending. The Coen brothers have made movies with surprising non-endings before; No Country for Old Men and A Serious Man come to mind. Unlike those films, though, the ending of Inside Llewyn Davis feels both completely unexpected and completely appropriate. Try as he might, Llewyn can’t find an ending to his story. At one point, he walks by a movie theater and sees a poster for The Incredible Journey, the movie about the pets who walk 200 miles to get home. Llewyn focuses on the cat, and the cat stares right back at him. Llewyn’s relationship with the orange tabby which is all over the marketing for the film is perhaps the strongest in the entire thing. Maybe that’s because it’s the closest that Llewyn comes to having a relationship with himself. His Incredible Journey begins before the film starts, and might not ever end. And maybe that’s not okay. It’s more than a little bleak, and more than a little cynical, and more than a little sad. But that’s who Llewyn is. We leave him in the only state he can possibly exist in, and even though it may seem sad, it couldn’t be any other way.
Post script: I’m taking this opportunity to discuss spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the film, don’t read any further.
First, I want to quickly discuss the silly debate that erupted on Twitter in the wake of the film’s opening. Was Mikey the son of the Gorfeins? Not that it has any real impact on the film, but I think that he is. For one thing, it would explain how Llewyn got so closely acquainted with the Gorfeins, a very rich couple living in the Upper West Side. And if they aren’t Mikey’s parents, they sure do seem to have a close relationship to him. When Mrs. Gorfein starts singing “Fare Thee Well” along with Llewyn, he stops and asks her what she’s doing. She replies, with a tad bit of incredulity, “It’s Mike’s part.” To me, that indicated a familial relationship. She feels like she has custody of Mike’s part because she’s his mother, and he’s dead. The most intriguing part of the scene is when Mrs. Gorfein storms out sobbing. She says something that’s hard to hear in the beginning. It sounds like, “[mumble, maybe “You”] sleep in his room!” My read on that line is that she’s offended that Llewyn would disrespect Mikey, even though he sleeps in Mikey’s room. There are bits that don’t fit. Mikey’s last name on the record sleeve isn’t Gorfein, but it’s entirely possible that he just changed his last name to something less unwieldy. Bob Dylan did. The other point that people have brought up is that the Gorfeins don’t introduce Llewyn as “Mikey’s friend” or “our son’s friend.” They call him “our folk singer friend.” The joke is that the Gorfeins apparently enjoy collecting acquaintances of various stripes, but they’re right. Why wouldn’t they introduce him in the context of their son? There are ways to explain this away, but there’s really no point. I love the idea that the Gorfeins are Mike’s parents, and I think it adds such an interesting texture to that dinner scene, but the movie as a whole isn’t affected by this question.
Next, the cat. Right up front the Coens show us their hand, and we don’t even know it. Llewyn gives the woman on the phone the message “Llewyn has the cat” to convey. She hears it as “Llewyn is the cat.” Well, there you have it. Llewyn is the cat. They told us in the first ten minutes of the movie. So, let’s extrapolate. What does that mean? It certainly makes Llewyn’s interactions with the cat take on a whole lot more significance. Right off the bat, the cat is stuck with Llewyn. They’re forced together because the cat runs out of the apartment. Perhaps they’re drawn together. Llewyn spends a little while trying to find a place to keep the cat. Just like him, the cat has nowhere to go and is constantly looking for a place to stay. That’s the most obvious connection. But then things get interesting. The cat runs away from Llewyn. It abandons him. Why? Well, it’s a pretty clear foreshadowing of Llewyn’s own abandoning of the other cat later on. The Gorfein’s cat is named Ulysses, as we later find out, so that’s how I’ll refer to him from now on. At the end of the film, we find out that Ulysses made it back home on his own against all odds. That’s not only a connection to The Incredible Journey, it’s also a reference to the great journey that Ulysses’ namesake went on. We don’t see Ulysses again until the end of the film, and Llewyn spends most of his time after that point with a random stray cat who he mistakes for Ulysses. This is the Other Cat, who goes unnamed. Where Ulysses’ Incredible Journey has a destination, the Other Cat’s doesn’t. In that way, the Other Cat is much more like Llewyn. He’s a wanderer, perhaps not by choice. This time, Llewyn is draw to the cat, instead of the other way around. And he has a deep connection with it, whether he knows it or not. After finding out that the cat isn’t the Gorfeins’, he no longer has any responsibility for it. But he keeps it for a while. It might seem for a while as if he’s learning compassion, and learning how to care for another person. But it’s all a facade. He abandons the Other Cat at the first opportunity. Llewyn can’t connect with other people, and since “Llewyn is the cat,” this means that he can’t even connect with himself. His last encounter with the cat is violent and depressing. The cat runs across the road late at night as Llewyn is on his way back to New York, and Llewyn nearly runs it over. He sees that there’s some blood on the bumper, and he sees the cat limping into the forest, hurt and alone. Even though Llewyn’s just as hurt and just as alone, the movie seems to suggest that he’s doing it to himself. This moment is in close proximity to another, wherein he think about whether or not to go to Akron and visit a child he had with a woman two years earlier. He thought that she had had an abortion, but a few days before he was told that she decided against it and moved in with her parents in Akron. Llewyn is given the chance to reach out to his child. He’s given the chance to care for another person, a person who is his responsibility. But he doesn’t. He keeps driving. And very soon afterwards, he hits the cat. Is it another example of the universe’s punishment? Or is the universe telling Llewyn that his problems are his own? The movie never comes down one way or the other, and I’m glad that they didn’t. The movie is all the better for it.
Finally, the ending. I can imagine some people finding the Bob Dylan appearance a little self-indulgent on the part of the Coens, who had resisted that kind of Forrest Gump-style gag throughout the film. For the first few seconds, it’s subtle. The young man taking the stage is perfectly framed above Llewyn’s shoulder. Even though he’s out of focus, you can see Dylan’s trademark harmonica around the man’s neck. And then you hear that voice, the one that could only belong to one singer. He’s following up Llewyn’s solo performance of “Fare Thee Well” with a song called “Farewell,” which is remarkably similar. The implications here are twofold, and the friend I saw it with read the scene in a totally different way than me. I saw it as a quasi-hopeful note to end on. Folk music is about to be huge. The character played by F. Murray Abraham didn’t “see a lot of money” in Llewyn, but once Dylan hits the big time, he might think differently. Llewyn lives at the center of the folk music scene, so it’s not unreasonable to think that he might find some success in this new movement. My friend saw it differently. She said that it was an intensely cynical ending. By showing Bob Dylan taking the stage after Llewyn, the movie implies that Dylan is about to make folk music commercial, which means that artists like Llewyn who aren’t as marketable will get left in Dylan’s dust. It is pretty interesting that Dylan plays a song so similar to Llewyn’s, so I think that this could go either way.
Of course, that’s not the only aspect of the ending worth talking about. The final scene is an identical copy of the first scene of the movie, with only a few minor differences. It opens with Llewyn awakening in the Gorfeins’ house, and he pokes his head out the door in the same way as before. He doesn’t let the cat out this time, though. In the final scene, Llewyn performs “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” and makes a joke about folk music, just like in the first scene. But in the final scene, he then performs a solo version of “Fare Thee Well.” This might imply that he’s moved on from his partnership with Mikey, and that he’s ready to work alone. It might also imply that he’s still stuck in the past and he’ll never be free of it. Who knows? The final scene goes on identically to the first, plus the presence of Bob Dylan. Papi tells Llewyn that he was “a real mess last night,” and this time we saw what he was talking about. Llewyn goes outside and gets beat up by the same man, in the same way, for the same reason, and they say the exact same things. Even the shots are identical. What are the Coens saying here? It seems that Llewyn is stuck in a loop. At first this scene threw me, because this idea hadn’t been present throughout the rest of the film. But it makes complete sense. Assuming you take the more cynical interpretations mentioned above, it means that Llewyn hasn’t learned anything and will continue to repeat this bleak cycle of despair. Maybe it’s a meta commentary on the nature of movies. This is a stretch, because there’s nothing else like it in the movie, but it’s an interesting thought. Llewyn only exists within the confines of this film, this story. Every time you watch the movie, you’re watching Llewyn’s entire existence. So of course his life is a never-ending cycle. It’s designed that way. There’s no beginning to his story, and no end. Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t a line, it’s a circle. In the last line of the movie, Llewyn sarcastically says “Au revoir” to the man who beat him up. Of course, right after that line, the credits roll, so he’s really saying goodbye to the audience. And why is he saying it sarcastically? Because he knows he’ll see the man again. And he knows the audience will see him again, too.
EDIT: After discussing the film with some other people, it was brought to my attention that I misread the final scene. It’s not a literal copy of the opening scene, it is the opening scene. The movie started with the final scene and then looped back around to build up to it. However, I stand by most of that interpretation. I don’t think it fundamentally changes the idea that I think the Coens were going for. It still suggests that loop without making it literal.