The Coens have, since their feature debut Blood Simple in 1984, been blessing audiences with their onscreen Americana-drama amid whimsy and quirk for the past three decades. Their latest offering Inside Llewyn Davis expands upon the musical odyssey started in O Brother Where Art Thou? What began with 1930s Bluegrass ends with the Greenwich Village folk scene of the sixties.
Llewyn, a blue-collar ex-Marine – a dead-pan, sardonic Oscar Isaac – is attempting to carve out a decent solo musical career (following the death of his singing partner) whilst living hand-to-mouth, surviving dangerously close to the bread line. He relies upon friends and acquaintances to provide him with a place to rest his head in between gigging and navigating a semblance of a career. He is supported by a cast of memorable characters including Jean and Jim, played by a less insipid Carey Mulligan who is extraordinary as the epitome of the angry young woman alongside her apple-pie husband Jim (Justin Timberlake); The Gorfeins: Lillian and Mitch (Robin Bartlett and Ethan Phillips), Al Cody (Adam Driver), Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), Roland Turner (John Goodman) and Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) – all wonderfully weird in their own way and beautifully rendered, only Sands’ Troy stumbles into caricature territory with his cardboard portrayal.
…Llewyn is Oscar Isaac’s first leading role and one the Julliard-educated actor was destined to play, his vocals are phenomenal. Although a collaborative effort by T-Bone Burnett, Marcus Mumford, and the supporting cast, all of whom sing their own song too, it is Isaac who shines; Llewyn is unlucky and not particularly likeable but as soon as he opens his mouth, (almost) all is forgiven. There is so much empathy to be felt for the character and the moment he utters the line, “I’m so fucking tired. I thought I just needed a goodnight’s sleep but it’s more than that.” Well, I challenge anybody who claims to have never felt that before.
While O Brother… was sepia in visuals, Inside Llewyn Davis’ palette is greys and greens offsetting a snow-kissed Greenwich Village, New Jersey, and Chicago. There is a melancholy to the visual aesthetic, thanks to Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography who replaces Coen regular Roger Deakins. Although, an original screenplay, it is clear that inspiration was taken from the story of Dave Van Ronk, a struggling musician around the same time as the setting of the film, and his 2005 biography The Mayor of MacDougal Street, even down to the inclusion of the cat (see album cover above).
Ah, the cat. *Everybody* has a theory about the domesticated mammal. The Gorfein’s ginger tabby, Ulysses (*other Homeric signifiers include: Troy, the gate of [the polished] horn, the fact that Llewyn is a sailor and on an existential odyssey and also the notion of music and muses. There were nine muses and coincidentally, a cat is said to have nine lives) escapes the apartment while under Llewyn’s watch and much of the film is spent searching for the escapee. What the feline symbolises is open to conjecture with only the filmmakers knowing the real answer and refusing to share. At one point a disembodied character mishears dialogue and declares, “Llewyn is the cat.” Personally, I interpreted the cat as an extension of Llewyn’s heart – missing-in-action a lot of the time -and the plot as depicting a lost soul in purgatory; stuck in limbo, fighting to make amends and yet forever doomed to remake the same mistakes, perform at the same dives, etcetera.
Following a beating after playing Pappi Corsicato’s ‘joint’, Llewyn awakens in a blindingly white apartment (the Gorfein’s) and eats eggs whilst perusing their record collection. He is head-to-toe in white and pulls out a copy of If I Had Wings, his duet with Mike, there is an ethereal quality to the image. Later, his car journey with Johnny and Roland can be read as on the Road to Hell; underworld bound, with the final destination: The Gate of Horn a further allusion, Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) can be seen as a St. Peter figure that will either welcome or refuse a entry into ‘heaven’. Redemption is often referred to as the ‘bosom of Abraham’ and the casting of an Abraham in this instance, in the form of F. Murray cannot be an accident. The Coen’s Jewish farce, A Serious Man (2009) deals with the crumbling life, both personally and professionally, of the title character leading him to question his faith. Llewyn Davis is of Welsh/Italian parentage, it is not too much of a stretch of to suggest Catholicism, however here, rather than question his faith, he merely ponders the transitional (and possibly the transcendental) aspect of his life.
It is interesting to further note that a lot of the songs used in the film, for example, Hang Me (Oh Hang Me), Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song), The Death of Queen Jane, Five Hundred Miles all deal with themes of journey; of departure and/or death, and the fact that the last words of the film are au revoir as Llewyn lies in an alley having been beaten by a Grim Reaper-like figure (who also sounds suspiciously like Coen regular Sam Elliott) adds weight to the argument. Or perhaps, these words bid a final farewell to Van Ronk who died in 2002.
Whatever your interpretation, Inside Llewyn Davis is a wonderful homage to a bygone era, and a musical scene which not only continued long after 1961 but one that has seen somewhat of a resurgence over the last few years. It depicts the harshness and loneliness reality can have on your dreams and aspirations; for me one of the Coen’s finest.