With the new year approaching, we celebrate our films of 2014. The Coens’s Inside Llewyn Davis is up.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a bleak and dark tale of a struggling musician set in 1961. The film starts with Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) performing a song to an absorbed crowd who offer him a decent applause as he finishes his set. He then steps outside and is confronted by a man, his face hidden, creating a dark sinister silhouette, who proceeds to beat Llewyn senseless. The movie then skips back a few days, allowing us to witness the build-up to the opening scene. Llewyn is a lost soul; he spends his days roaming New York in search for a place to lay his head, or a few bucks to see him by.
Folk seems to be going nowhere. Execs seek out the disciplined and clean types, and push the more rebellious musicians to one side
Torn by the suicide of his musical partner, Llewyn is trying to forge a solo career within the folk music scene, and the film does an excellent job at portraying this suffocating arena. Managers, producers, executives all seem reluctant to take a chance on anyone within a genre that seems to be going nowhere. They seek out the disciplined and clean types, and push the more rebellious musicians to one side. But his music career isn’t the only thing crippling Llewyn – he seems crushed by the weight of life, of lingering issues that together are almost too much to bear.
Arguably the main focus point of the whole story is imagery created by a cat. This cat (or more accurately, pair of cats, a friend’s pet and a stray) both symbolises Llewyn’s fleeting career and the free spirited lifestyle he dreams of. Llewyn relies heavily on the kindness and hospitality of his friends and connections, but Llewyn also doesn’t want to be tied down. His very nature seems to be brought to life by the animal. However, unlike the cat, Llewyn’s friends are starting to become disillusioned with his lifestyle. He is becoming a burden for those around him.
The cat thus becomes a sort of mocking figure, the incarnation of Llewyn’s dreams and hopes that seems to be laughing at him throughout the film. The cat also symbolises Llewyn’s music career. The appearance of the main cat, Ulysses, seems to be a good omen for Llewyn. Shortly after accidently appropriating Ulysses, the cat that followed Llewyn out of its owners’ place, Llewyn is offered a session job on a friend’s latest record. However, just before the gig, Llewyn loses the cat and, although the gig goes well, it also signifies a big loss for Llewyn, who is in no financial position to wait for the necessary papers to claim royalties on the song.
Where Ulysses – the cat owned by Llewyn’s friends – may well represent hope, the unknown cat represents despair
After, Llewyn, thinking he has found Ulysses, picks up a stray cat of the opposite sex. This new cat marks a turning point for Llewyn. As doubts fill his head, he alienates himself more and more from his friends. And after a road trip to Chicago to meet a producer, Llewyn’s dreams are all but crushed, symbolised with Llewyn’s running over of the cat on his return to New York. Where Ulysses may well represent hope, the unknown cat represents despair.
Llewyn enters a new frame of mind – he decides to give up on his dreams, to accept an unappealing fate as a merchant marine and a life of grind and hardship that will finish with him old and frail in a nursing home like his father. However, even this backup plan fails, as Llewyn is prevented from entering this new life. Then, after seemingly messing up another opportunity by heckling a performer and violently acting out against the owner of the bar in which he is set to play, Llewyn hits rock bottom. Once again, he puts all his hopes on his friends and discovers that Ulysses has been reunited with his owners.
Ulysses’s return seems to wipe the slate clean. Llewyn performs as expected and we have gone full circle – we are back to the opening scene with Llewyn playing his song, receiving applause and walking outside to a beating. Only now we see an image of Bob Dylan taking the stage behind as Llewyn finishes his set; the folk scene has shifted, it has a new icon, an icon that in many ways parallels Llewyn.
Inside Llewyn Davis is about one man’s journey to self-worth. Llewyn’s struggles will only make him better at what he does
The Coen brothers have once again excelled with Inside Llewyn Davis. The almost colourless nature of the film truly captures the spirit and essence of the story. The directors also convincingly mark a shift in music at the turn of the 60s. The song Please Mr. Kennedy, performed by Llewyn, his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake), and fellow folk singer Al Cody (Adam Driver), makes an excellent example of how rock’n’roll has become popularised. Although the song clearly foretells the upcoming counter-culture (by begging Mr Kennedy not to send someone into space), it is also squeaky clean and easily digested.
Llewyn’s disgust and indifference to this music shows a much deeper attitude and approach, which will only be echoed once Bob Dylan takes the stage in the movie’s dying moments. In many ways, Inside Llewyn Davis is about one man’s journey to self-worth. Llewyn must strive to attain his dreams, as the hardships and struggles will only make him better at what he does. The silhouette of a man who beats Llewyn is therefore the personification of the past. A past that has left Llewyn hurt and scarred, but also stronger and less susceptible to the calamities of life.
All images: CBS Films