Inside Llewyn Davis: A Dark Dissection of Redemption, Determination and Failure

Nearly 30 years into their already legendary career, Joel and Ethan Coen introduced the world to their most complex and unique creation yet: Llewyn Davis. Llewyn is the titular character of the Coen’s 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis, the story of a talented, yet selfish folk singer navigating the rough terrain of the 1960’s Greenwich Village Folk scene. Llewyn, portrayed marvelously by Oscar Isaac, is someone who has lost himself and feels out of place in the world. Having lost his his best friend and partner Mike to a suicide, failing as a solo artist, and becoming homeless and broke, Llewyn finds solace mainly in his music, losing grip on the world to the point where he has to play constant catch up as his live crumbles around him. Llewyn has to sleep on friends and strangers couches every night, leading to accidental affairs, lost cats and revelations of illegitimate children. Llewyn hopes to make it big, but has little motivation and next to zero financial support. His story is one of heartbreaking failure, and ill-fated determination. His story is one that would and could lead to redemption; however, as the Coen’s have showed us time and time again, history is not always written by the winners.

We meet Llewyn giving a melancholy rendition of the folk classic “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in the iconic Gaslight Cafe. Right off the bat we see that his audience, while engaged, are mostly unenthused. Llewyn’s inability to connect with audiences is a theme that comes up often in the film. When Llewyn steps outside to a dark alley after performing, he is brutally beaten by a mysterious man in a suit. The Coens are asking us to feel bad for this man, without giving us reasons why. Llewyn later wakes up in his friends, the Gorfeins, apartment; having spent the night there. He examines their quaint home, playing a catchy song off a record of his and his former partners. On his way out the Gorfeins, their pesky cat runs out the door after Llewyn, and before he can catch him and put him back in the apartment, the door slams shut. Llewyn is forced to take care of this cat until the Gorfeins get home and he can return it, and the cat causes, to put it bluntly, chaos. While staying at another friends apartment, belonging to the bitter Jean and friendly Jim, the cat escapes, leaving Llewyn anxious and irritated. Matters are made even worse when the subtlety ticked off Jean informs Llewyn that she is pregnant, with possibly his child. Jean is extremely angry at Llewyn, because she is forced to abort what could be a perfectly good child that belongs to Jim; so, out of kindness, Llewyn agrees to pay for the abortion with money that he does not have. While seeing the doctor to discuss the procedure, and with money he swindled from Jim, the doctor informs Llewyn that he will not charge Llewyn, due to his ex girlfriend cancelling her abortion at the last minute. The news that Llewyn has a child out there that he has never met and had no knowledge of shocks him and leaves him visibly affected. He has no idea that his life is crumbling around him, and this is only half of it.

As the film goes on, it’s hard to exactly pinpoint who and what is the cause of Llewyn’s personal struggles. Is it a lack of motivation? Is it Llewyn’s stubbornness? Is it some divine entity devoted to making his life a constant failure? The answer is, it’s a bit of everything, also the fact that the Coens are known for being almost brutally harsh on their characters, and Llewyn is the biggest example of this. It’s soon after finding out about his ex that he departs for Chicago, in hopes of meeting Bud Grossman at his club and possibly signing a record deal. He is driven to Chicago by the mysterious and quiet Johnny Five, who is chauffeuring the talkative and rude New Orleans jazz-music, Roland Turner. On their trip Llewyn finally discloses what happened to his former partner, Mike: he threw himself. To which Turner snarkingly replies that no one ever throws the self of the Brooklyn Bridge. Llewyn hits another crossroad when at a roadside restaurant, Turner dies from a heroin overdose. Johnny and Llewyn load Roland into the car and drive off and while stopped for resting, Johnny is arrested on suspicion of being drunk. Llewyn abandons the car, and the cat. What cat though? When Llewyn was talking to Jean at a diner, he saw what he thought was the Gorfeins cat. He attempted to return it, and after an angry outburst at Mrs. Gorfeins for singing one of Mike’s parts in one of their songs, she reveals that it was not their cat after all, so Llewyn takes it and leaves. Llewyn than walks the rest of the way to Chicago, finally reaching the elusive and stern Bud Grossman. He performs a very beautiful, yet melancholy song called “The Death of Queen Jane” for him, to which he devastatingly reveals that Llewyn has no potential as a solo performer. And just like that, Llewyn’s one shot, is gone. The entire film has been seemingly leading to Llewyn maybe, just maybe getting an opportunity, and when it’s just on the edge of his grasp, like everything else in his life, it slips away.

Llewyn hitch hikes his way back to New York, completely and utterly lost. On the drive back, he passes the town that his ex and his child live, and he debates stopping by, but ultimately decides against it. Later on, Llewyn runs over what he believes to be the cat he had earlier abandoned, he is distraught and terrified at the possibility. However, he continues on home. Upon his return, he decides to rejoin the Merchant Marine union, using the last of his money to do so. Llewyn searches for his seamen license, eventually realizing that his sister trashed it. He attempts to replace his license, but he cannot afford the $85 dollar fee. We see Llewyn visiting his ailing father, performing a song that his father once loved. To Llewyn’s shock and disgust, his father just soils himself. Llewyn later pays another visit to Jean, who informs him she got him a gig at the Gaslight Cafe. While at the Gaslight soon after, the manager Pappi reveals that he had sex with Jean. This angers Llewyn, leading him to get drunk, mercilessly heckle an old woman performing, and denouncing folk music. He is thrown out. Llewyn returns to the Gorfeins, who inform him that the novelty song he recorded with Jim earlier in the film, is a hit and is receiving huge royalties. This doesn’t matter much to Llewyn though, he declined the royalties in favor of hard cash right there after recording. Just another example of his poor decision making coming back to bite him. We see Llewyn at the Gaslight Cafe again, performing the same song from the beginning, we soon realize we ARE watching the beginning, an extended version that is. We see him do a solo performance of one of him and Mike’s songs, before leaving the Cafe to go meet his “friend” outside. But before he leaves we can see someone else performing in the Gaslight, and that person is none other than Bob Dylan, performing beautifully, while rousing and engaging the crowd, the one thing Llewyn could never do. Llewyn is beaten outside while Bob Dylan gets his big break. Llewyn watches the man in black leave, bidding him a sarcastic “Au revoir”. This ending is perfectly symbolic of Llewyn’s tragic life, no matter what he does, how hard he tries… his life is just a circle, always leading back to the Gaslight Cafe, performing the same songs to the same bored crowd.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a character study of the highest order. Putting a sad and lonely man who is true to his love for music but just can’t put it into action. The fact that the Coens can introduce such a unique and complicated character after near 30 years of wacky and colorful characters like Marge from “Fargo”, The Dude from “The Big Lebowski” and Anton Chigurh from “No Country For Old Men” is an astounding testament to their unprecedented understanding of beautiful, and sometimes very ugly characters of all shapes and sizes. Life sometimes just….. Doesn’t work out. In Llewyn’s case, not much ever works out. But he teaches us exactly how not to be, and maybe that enough. Just make do with what you got, like Llewyn. Or just go with the flow, and bid “Au revoir” to all that passes you by.