By Christine Jin
Equal parts a dense character study and a soft-toned portrayal of the 1960s folk music scene, the Coen brothers’ latest film has a modest but indelible moment a little past the hour mark, in which the protagonist Llewyn Davis trudges through the snow and clutches his worn-out corduroy jacket tight against a winter gust just when his foot slips in a slush puddle. It’s soon followed by an equally unforgettable close-up of the foot as he struggles to take off the soaked shoe in a diner. He’s thumbed his way to Chicago uninvited for an audition from New York, where he’s basically an unknown drifter, couch to couch, earning a few bucks from a tip basket at the Gaslight Cafe, the then-favourite hangout of aspiring folk singers.
This trip may very well be his last opportunity to ever have a career, but the wet sock simply looks like a bad omen. He waits and hesitates before finally walking into a barely-lit folk club called The Gate of Horn. With an impassive-looking producer sitting opposite him, Llewyn manages to pour whatever is left of his soul into his performance. His emotional rendition of ‘The Death of Queen Jane’ predictably meets with a disheartening response: “I don’t see a lot of money here.” A heightened contrast between the macabre mood and natural sunlight streaming in through the wide open door accentuates the tragedy, though Llewyn nods in quiet resignation. Played by Juilliard alumnus Oscar Isaac, Llewyn graces the screen with a couple more showstoppers like this one throughout, assuring us viewers that he is indeed a hell of a talent; except he just never seems to have luck on his side.
Life isn’t fair, as it were, and success is forever elusive for Llewyn, despite his gift, integrity, and of course, Welsh name, which can perhaps lend him the mystique of a true artist. It seems what’s missing is the likability factor — a genuine, relatable entertainer persona. He learns during the aforementioned audition that he is not capable of moving people beyond warranted respect; it’s admiration, maybe, but not necessarily love that he elicits. That’s how he differs from, say, Troy Nelson, a performer of approachable nature, who supposedly falls short of Llewyn’s standards. In an early Gaslight-set scene, Llewyn can’t help commenting on Troy’s song with skepticism as he often does to his fellow musicians. But when their mutual friends Jean and Jim join Troy onstage and together get the customers to sing along, that moment of connection escapes Llewyn.
It’s something he can do very little about, but his self-destructive aloofness isn’t exactly a virtue, either. With that comes fecklessness, and he may have knocked up at least two women, including Jean. It’s also implied from the outset, and clearly shown towards the end, that he’s a frequent heckler. Moreover, a proud professional, Llewyn gets easily offended even by the Gorfeins — a generous senior couple with a diversified taste in music and a refined upper-middle-class home, where he’s a regular mooch — when they ask him to play and Mrs. Gorfein starts singing the harmony. Being an asshole goes hand in hand with being unable to touch hearts. When he offers unprompted gigs, they fail to resonate: first with the Gate of Horn impresario, Bud Grossman, then later with his own ailing father, an ex-marine, who reacts by shitting his pants.
An inability to connect with his audience is not Llewyn’s only problem. There’s a pervasive sense of loss too, concerning Llewyn’s late partner, Mike Timlin, on one hand, and all those missed chances of an alternative, more rewarding lifestyle on the other. He’s constantly reminded of Mike’s absence, and his journey to Chicago delivers a stultifying effect when, unaware of the loss, Grossman advises that the duo reunite as if that were the only option to salvage Llewyn’s career. As if he’s destined to fail on his own no matter what.
That death and fate figure in Inside Llewyn Davis shouldn’t surprise anyone conversant with the Coen brothers’ work. Arguably, those elements contribute to a pessimistic streak in their films, and certainly the outlook for Llewyn’s future seems just as bleak as that oncoming storm at the end of A Serious Man, another fable of a modern-day Job by the brothers. But Llewyn isn’t someone completely subjugated to forces beyond his control. He chose that path over a settled life, family, and secure job, even though he will never become a musician of Bob Dylan’s caliber. Along with the seemingly pre-determined construction of a perpetual loser narrative, the Coens allow their consistent moral vision to complicate our perception of Llewyn. Aside from his off-putting behavior in general, his spur-of-the-moment actions return to him with painful consequences. He can’t ship out without the shipping license that he asked his sister to throw out; desperate to get money for Jean’s abortion, he signs away royalties on a song that might become a huge hit. The identical scenes outside the Gaslight that bookend the movie reinforce that sense that, much as he’s an unlucky genius, he gets what he deserves.
Then, of course, there is the cat. First it brings mellow hues and fluffy texture into the movie’s otherwise depressingly wintry look and feel, then it tiptoes out of the Gorfeins’ apartment into Llewyn’s life like a pure coincidence. Though the directors claim that the film doesn’t have a plot, the scenes organically link together with clues that foreshadow later events, bits of information that gradually delineate the scope of Llewyn’s small world and reveal the implications of his actions and choices. Fitting snugly into this well-organized plot is the cat, an entirely chance existence. The Coens keep teasing us by suggesting Llewyn is the cat, or that the cat bears the same fate as Llewyn, or that the cat is a mirror image of what makes up Llewyn’s life: his irresponsible self, a child he can’t take care of, his own scars, or those he inflicted on others, his nomadic future, and so on. Whatever the cat is, it isn’t anchored to one specific meaning. Near the end of the movie, Llewyn’s story comes full circle, right back to the first sequence. He wakes up on a couch that doesn’t belong to him, again, with a cat staring at him. It’s the Gorfeins’ couch; the Gorfeins’ cat.
Christine Jin is a contributing editor for the magazine.