“I thought I just needed a night’s sleep, but it’s…it’s more than that” Llewyn Davis admits towards the end of the Coen Brothers latest masterpiece – a melancholic and sombre meditation on life as an ever-discouraged artist with all its uncertainty, setbacks, heartbreaks, loneliness and unrewarded effort. It’s a masterfully shot piece of work with marvellous costumes, expectedly great dry humour and an exquisite soundtrack that feels – 50 years in the future – as awakening as a 1961 winter’s morning in the Greenwich Village that the film is set.
Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a talented musician with a clearly diminished enthusiasm and lust for life after the recent suicide of his musical partner, Mike. Touring the couches of his friends more than concert venues, he’s certainly not going to find the good night’s sleep he craves as he shamefully loathes his desperate need to visit the house of Mike’s (assumed) parents because of its painful reminder, and that of his friends Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake) because of his recent affair with Jean. But it’s his faults, flaws and inadequacies that have led to his current situation where self-defeating mishap after mishap snowballs into a collective monumental problem of emotional stability and identity crisis that many in the performing arts suffer from on varying levels. The death has clearly left its mark on Davis, who forever carries its baggage with him alongside his acoustic guitar; it’s draining away the passion for music that allowed him to do more than “just exist” but now barely keeps him more alive than Mike.
For much of Inside Llewyn Davis the titular character is joined by a ginger cat, including a scene halfway through the film where he travels to Chicago with cynical jazz careerist Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his pitiful helper Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). It’s something reminiscent of Barton Fink in its hallucinatory perspective as Davis is trapped between someone who he resents as a possibility for his future and someone he sadly relates all too much to now. It’s a surreal nightmare he wants to wake up from in front of Bud Grossman, the venue manager he’s travelling to audition for. Johnny is arrested mid-commute, leaving Davis to hitchhike the rest of the journey and choosing to abandon the ginger cat. On his way back driving from Chicago to New York, he inadvertently hits the cat and sees it hobbling off bloodied and near death. Both these instances are important in distinguishing the much debated relevance of the cat, with my initial reaction aligning alongside Emma Dibdin at Digital Spy in that the cat is Mike.
We’re never given any proper insight into Mike’s suicide, with the typical Coen Brothers mystery making this character study all the more fascinating. As with the cat, does he feel inadvertently responsible for his partner’s death? When leaving the cat behind (after trying to offload it on a number of people beforehand), he finally chooses to leave behind his association with Mike and go audition to prove himself as the solo act he now is. Unfortunately the harsh reality is that 1961 only values him as part of an ensemble, leaving him haunted by never-ending questions of “what if?” Is his performance of the inappropriately delightful “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” a reference to his late partner, or a plea to any willing audience member? The film cleverly comes full circle in its pleasantly ambiguous way, seemingly allowing Davis to change the course of his life by letting go of Mike through stopping the cat squeezing through the open door and joining him. When Isaac caps off his superb performance with an “au revour”, it’s symbolic of Davis saying goodbye to this lifestyle which once illuminated his life with excitement but now brings emotionally crippling pain.
You can’t help but compare and reflect the Coen Brothers themselves to the depicted musical duo within Inside Llewyn Davis; they boost each other creatively to the point where you couldn’t imagine either be interested in making films without the other, while your interest in a project from one single member is probably diminished. Like most of their work this will remain with you for days afterwards, deserving multiple viewings to savour and appreciate its richy composite thoughts.