Inside Llewyn Davis is film about grief. It’s a movie about suicide in which the suicide happens off-screen, before the film even begins. It’s a circular tale, but not like James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. It is more like James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is like Homer’s Odyssey, which is like the Coen Brothers’ earlier collaboration with music producer T. Bone Burnett, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. But if it is like another Coen brothers movie, it is most like the Talmudic parable that is A Serious Man. And it may also be, as The Dissolve’s Matt Singer suggests, about how bleak life would be if the Coens didn’t have each other.
All this can be easily forgotten as one bathes in the mood and atmosphere of the 60’s folk scene. Llewyn, in the form of actor Oscar Isaac, seems fully-formed as a real person, perhaps because he is based on a real self-sabotaging folk singer who once served in the merchant marine. Meanwhile, he’s surrounded by the Felliniesque character faces we’ve come to know and love from the Coens. The old couple who manage Davis and John Goodman’s voodoo jazz daddy are two highlights of a teeming, Simpsonian world.
For those who enjoy their ironies exquisite, I can hardly think of a finer film. I have little else to say, except a small note about the metaphorical cat that got away — spoilers…
There are two cats in the film, just as there were two singers in Llewyn’s previous band. The first cat, Ulysses, finds his way back home to the Gorefeins (up near Columbia) from Jim and Jean’s place. The other cat (the one without a scrotum) whom Llewyn abandons outside Chicago with the sleeping Roland Turner — it is suggested by the Incredible Journey poster — is the same one he wounds on the highway coming back to New York. Why is the cat always distracting from Jean discussing the abortion? Without the abortion, Llewyn wouldn’t have learned he has a child in Akron. If he had turned at the exit, he wouldn’t have hit the cat. You might try to draw parallels between the cats and Llewyn, who is also homeless and limping through life, but it is not a pat literary metaphor.
Rather, these cats are a sort of poetic statement about the fatality of life and fortune and fame. Sometimes you miss becoming Bob Dylan by a few minutes.