In A Serious Man (2009) the Coen brothers placed the Book of Job in a mostly contemporary American context. Although he was not unflawed, the main character was beset by a series of disasters mostly not of his own making. In Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), the Coens give us a main character so unlikeable and tedious that it’s difficult to know whether most of the indignities he suffers are of his own causing, or whether he is the victim of bad historical timing or a combination. Llewyn wants to be a folk singer with a recording contract and profitable gigs, but for reasons the film shows us and hints at he doesn’t succeed. The partner he once sang and recorded an album with committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. We never know details of the death, which is mentioned only twice in the film, but I think we’re supposed to see it as a devastating event for Llewyn. (It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could survive as Llewyn’s partner). In every possible way his life is miserable. Early in the film we see him viciously attacked in a back alley—retribution for his heckling of a singer the previous evening. He can’t afford his own apartment and relies on friends and acquaintances (whom he abuses in various ways) to give him a place to stay. He sleeps with his best friend’s wife and leaves her pregnant—the second pregnancy he has caused. He slugs a nightclub owner who has given him numerous opportunities to sing. He passes up an opportunity to join a three-person folk group that sounds suspiciously like Peter, Paul, and Mary. His need for quick and easy bucks causes him to turn down the chance to receive royalty checks for a friend’s novelty song that becomes a hit. Finally, and significantly, he declines a chance to play a double bill with another singer at the Gaslight. The New York Times, we’re told, is going to be there. By then he has already decided to give folk singing up, and as he leaves the Gaslight we hear the voice, and see the profile, of another very recognizable folk singer whose career is about to take off.
Llewyn’s ambition is strong, but his talent isn’t up to his ambition, and his timing is terrible. He sings well, and with feeling, but perhaps not well enough.
Only one actual historical figure appears in the film. The others are fictional creations, though they remind us occasionally of real singers, such as Dave Van Ronk or Cisco Houston or Ian and Sylvia or Peter, Paul, and Mary. There are, notably, no black singers in the film, though much of the folk revival of the 50s and 60s was inspired by black music, and in fact such singers as Richie Havens and Lead Belly and others were a presence in the folk revival days. But everyone is committed and inspired and ambitious.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a period piece. It really looks like Greenwich Village of the early 1960s. The color palette is muted and subdued, and it often seems overcast if it is not actually raining. It specifically reminded me of the famous album cover from Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963).
A friend complained to me that the film has no plot. In a conventional sense, perhaps not. It’s more like a mythic quest, with various stops and pitfalls along the way. Llewyn meets characters as bizarre and incredible as any of the figures in The Odyssey, or in the photography of Diane Arbus. His goal is fame as a folk singer, but every opportunity he seeks, even the chance to go back to the maritime when he gives up, doesn’t pan out. He doesn’t take good advice, nor does he accept several significant offers of assistance. His performance in front of a folk impresario (the film’s version of Albert Grossman) fails, and the impresario tells him that he needs a partner. Llewyn doesn’t want a partner. The one question that grows throughout the film is simple: what’s going to happen? What’s going to break this seemingly endless chain of mistakes, outrages, abuse, and failure? As far as Llewyn goes, there is no answer. But for folk music, for the position of success and fame that Llewyn and others are seeking to seize, there is an answer.
Much of the film consists of a narrative loop that we can see as a dream story or as in some way surreally metaphoric. The film opens in the alleyway to the Gaslight (thought at that point we don’t know its name). Llewyn stumbles out the back door into the dark alley. We hear faintly in the background the voice of someone playing inside. I recognized the voice, but it is so faint and muted that most people probably did not. Then a dark figure emerges from the alley and beats Llewyn nearly into unconsciousness. He awakes, and from that point the film unrolls. We gradually learn about who Llewyn is, what he has done to make everyone angry with him, how he has not met with success on the folk scene, how he fails to impress the one person who could have helped him. He ends up in the Gaslight and turns down the owner’s offer to play the next night. In the film’s final scene, we see the silhouette and hear the ragged yet absolutely riveting voice of a young Bob Dylan. This is the answer, not to what is going to happen to Llewyn (he’s going to fade away), but to what is going to happen to the Greenwich Village folk scene. This is a moment of fate, chance, fortune, or history—a moment so powerful that we know that no matter what break Llewyn might have had, he could never have lived up to this moment. He’s lost irretrievably.
The one figure in the film that suggests Llewyn is not entirely lost is a cat. When he leaves the apartment of friends who have lent him their sofa to sleep on, their mackerel-colored cat runs out the door. Llewyn chases after it, but the apartment door has locked behind him. He chases the cat down and loses it and chases it down again and in various fumbling ways tries to take care of and eventually return it to the owners. Unfortunately, he returns the wrong cat, which he also tries to care for before finally abandoning it. Llewyn is haunted by the cat, by his sense of responsibility to it, by his guilt over having lost it and (in one scene) possibly having run over it. Near the end of the film, the original cat shows up, miraculously recovered by its owners, safe and sound. The cat’s name, it turns out, is Ulysses. No name in a Coen Brothers film is without meaning. This one is not accidental. It reminded me of the mystical, totem-like cat that seems always to be present in Haruki Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore (2002). We might associate it with Tennyson’s famous long poem, about Ulysses’ courageous voyage towards death. Or we might link it to the James Joyce novel (1922), about a seemingly endless walk around the city of Dublin on June 4, 1904. Or maybe we go back directly to Homer himself. None of these possibilities fully work with the film, but in general the name is allusive and evocative at the same time, suggesting a larger meaning at stake in Llewyn’s journey than the quest for fame and success in the folk world.