The Coen Brothers again twist and skewer their latest film. Inside Llewyn Davis is ostensibly about a failing po-faced depressive folk artist in the fledgling Greenwich Village scene of 1961 before Dylan’s breakthrough. Yet it becomes a quasi-Odyssey, an exposition on human limitations and unrealised dreams played out through a cat. Yes, a cat. In the finest feline performance since Garfield 2, this cat actor, ‘Cactor’ is the parallel protagonist and demands equal plaudits alongside Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and co. Once again, the Coen Brothers have led a critic astray down the dodgy alleyway of allegorical allusion ready to be beaten by a shady character much like Llewyn Davis in the cyclical narrative arc which bookends the film with a wincing, weedy Llewyn beaten behind his local haunt, The Gaslight Cafe.
This intuitive plotline reveals the climax, and then the film fills in the intervening period leading to the climactic backstreet encounter. The Coen Brothers have said the inspiration for the film is a what if: what if Greenwich Village pioneering legend, Dave Van Ronk had been knocked around before he broke through and engineered the folk revival which set the stage for Dylan. Mining what they have billed an untapped period before the explosion of the scene, the film chronicles the haunted Llewyn Davis in the aftermath of his partner’s suicide, with whom he formed a modestly successful duo, and his attempt to rekindle his career in the pursuit of a purist dream to fulfil his creative passion and secure a record contract. Oscar Isaac captures the desperate disenchantment of Llewyn as he careers from setback to setback in a catalogue of failures. Llewyn is an unlikeable character who is a somewhat snobbish idealist suffering in the throes of futility in the professional and domestic setting. The two most effective scenes are where his career, performance, collides with the domestic scene highlighting the totality of Llewyn’s abject failings. Davis is a homeless squatter who hops from couch to couch spreading his nihilistic self-loathing absorption to all in some sort of warped altruism. When exhausted, this network of hosts leads him to the well to do Gorfeins of the New York elite, a contrast which sits awkwardly with Llewyn, more suited to his native Greenwich Village. Invited to perform a soiree in front of the Gorfeins’ guests, Llewyn flips and storms out decrying the belittlement of his talent in so ludicrous a setting and leaving his host in tears as, seething, he spits and swears, burning one of his few remaining bridges. From spit to shit. The incompatibility of his music is echoed in his family relationships; his potty mouth upsets his sister throughout and marks him as an appalling role model for his nephew. The best example is the scene with his father, a retired, Merchant navy sailor, the pervading reality which overhangs Llewyn throughout as the sole alternative to the fulfilment of his musical achievement. Llewyn plays for his father in an uncharacteristic visit but is steadfastly ignored and departs acknowledged solely in shit as the incontinent geriatric leaves his stirring rendition in the cess pit.
Llewyn Davis may lead a squalid existence whose musical talent goes to shit, but this is not reflected in the masterful soundtrack. The Coen Brothers risk live performance to provide the film score with a rewarding integrity and Oscar Isaac, a former lead vocalist and guitarist in punk outfit, the Blinking Underdogs, is made for the role and his casting pays dividends in the quality of the soundtrack. The combination of Marcus Mumford and Justin Timberlake may sound a somewhat questionable foundation for a faithful rendering of the era’s music, but under T Bone Burnett’s musical direction they help provide an affectionate and consistent revival of the scene. Carey Mulligan, Mumford’s wife, Britain’s Thames Valley version of a Jay–Z, Beyoncé power couple, steps up to vocals in a bold move for the actress. The rekindling of the Isaac–Mulligan partnership last aired in 2011’s Drive is inspired as the pair have a strong onscreen chemistry as their characters realise the dichotomy between the purist and the careerist perspective to musical endeavour. For the successful Jean (Mulligan) engaged to Jim (Justin Timberlake) Llewyn is a washed up loser: a charity case. For Llewyn, Jean is a pariah, ironically on whom he is largely dependent, whose success he begrudgingly envies but deems hollow. The pair are brought together under the shadow of an illicit abortion as Llewyn gets Jean pregnant and in the most apt words which aptly surmise Llewyn’s character, she declares “Everything you touch turns to shit. You’re like King Midas’ idiot brother.” In the scene with his Father these words are realised in a rewardingly dark pay off.
Llewyn is a worthless shit who fails in every conceivable environment and that in essence is the film’s narrative. He is almost entirely without redeeming qualities and so any sympathy is perhaps the film’s fatal flaw. Paw: back to the bloody cat. The cat is bloody as Llewyn maims it on his return from the ill-fated voyage to Chicago’s Gate of Horn music venue where the gloriously goateed dream maker Bud Grossman (F Murray Abraham) rejects his final intrepid venture to nail down a record contract. The film only really drags as we seem to follow Llewyn’s turbulent road trip in torturous real time. The Gate of Horn and the continuously reoccurring ginger tabby, whose name is eventually revealed as Ulysses, spell out the film’s Homeric inspiration. The cat, though there are apparently two, is a fascinating device through which the Coen Brothers mirror the respective fortunes of their protagonist: both are free to roam yet return home; one is bloodied, the other battered as they hit the road in pursuit of the dream and return to the same spot: Llewyn to New York and the cat to the Gorfeins. This ploy is a playful distraction from the melancholy melodrama of Llewyn’s existence and a ploy which raises the film from a mere funeral dirge of defeated dreams into a piece of high art which can be interpreted whichever way you choose either with the potential inter text of the Odyssey or a feline figment of Coen imagination: just do not rely solely on Llewyn to guide you Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coen Brothers are at play again…