Dissecting Inside Llewyn Davis: Llewyn Is the Cat

Dissecting Llewyn Davis Header
Grant and Zac take a belated look at Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest from the Coen brothers, which hasn’t settled with audiences the way many of their other classics have.

Grant: I know we are both big Coen brothers fans. And we have talked about how much we liked Oscar Isaac in Drive. So I’m guessing you also had big expectations for this film. While there was plenty to enjoy (highlighted by Isaac’s great performance), this film feels like a slight disappointment when compared to other Coen brothers films. Do you agree or do you think my expectations were too high?

Zac: I have managed to dull my anticipation levels for just about every film I see and I imagine your expectations might have played a big part in the way you reacted to the film; as they still did mine. This is the least outwardly humorous film by the Coen’s since A Serious Man which still had a more traditional approach to the Coen brothers brand of humor. Like all of their films it grows with repeat viewings.

Having seen Llewyn Davis twice now I can vouch that the film only gets better on a second viewing, but listening to the soundtrack and just thinking about the film in general, greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the film after the first go around. I was caught off guard on my first viewing, even if I adored what I was seeing, but as the filmed simmered in my brain my appreciation quickly grew to all out love only days later.

Grant: I’m glad to hear that the film really grew on you. The soundtrack is great, but after only one viewing I rank it a notch or two below the long list of Coen brothers films that I love.

You noted that Llewyn Davis and A Serious Man are bleak films with little outward humor. However, A Serious Man contained a dark humor that cracked me up throughout the film. Part of the reason may be the attitudes of the protagonists. Llewyn had a persistent disdain for his surroundings throughout the movie that was sometimes humorous, while Larry (from A Serious Man) was constantly bewildered by his surroundings, and it was hilarious every time.

In addition, I felt like the ensemble was not as effective as it usually is in Coen brothers films. The Coen brothers always feature unique supporting characters that are funny and odd while advancing the message of the film or propelling the plot. Upon reflection, I think there were fewer great supporting characters in Llewyn Davis than in other Coen brothers films.

Zac: I have to disagree with you there as I enjoyed just about every face that popped up in this one. My only complaint would be Carey Mulligan was a bit too shrill in that park scene early on, but I think her character really redeems herself in that final scene in the apartment.

I loved the journey with John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund to Chicago. It was so terrifying on those night roads and an appropriately bizarre diversion. I think Timberlake does a fine job and I love the look on his face in that first scene when they watch the equally magical robotic Private folk singer. Adam Driver leaves a mark in the please Mr. Kennedy sequence. Both of the guys at the longshoreman Union killed me. His agent and her secretary. The Gorfeins. The film is full of great characters, I think the problem you can levy against the film is that you don’t get to know them all that well.

And this is OK in the context of the film’s perspective because our point of view is Llewyn’s, and he clearly doesn’t want to have anything to do with just about anybody.

Plus, that first Cat is awesome (no disrespect to cat number 2).

Grant: I agree with you regarding Al Cody, after Llewyn finds the records under the end table, Al Cody is not just the guy that makes goofy sound effects, he becomes a fully-fledged character who is potentially more desperate than Llewyn. Slightly off topic, are you as angry as I am that “Please Mr. Kennedy” was left off the Oscar ballot because of a technicality?

Troy (the private) was indeed great, he along with Pappi (the club owner) created the funniest moments of the film for me. Regarding Timberlake, I saw some of his best moments in the previews, so I was anticipating more. I will probably enjoy the character more in subsequent watches.

The manager and John Goodman’s characters were amusing, but in other Coen brother movies those types of characters are hilarious. Goodman had a great line about the George Washington Bridge, but other than that his character was ineffective. He wasn’t just an annoyance for Llewyn in that car, he also became an annoyance for me as a viewer. While the nighttime driving scenes were great, I think they would have been just as good if Llewyn was driving by himself.

I do like your point about the side characters being kept at a distance to reflect Llewyn’s preference to be alone. I’m sure it was deliberate by the Coen brothers, but the end result is just not as much fun, in my opinion.

The cat is awesome and he works on a symbolic level too! The cat’s name is Ulysses, similar to Clooney in O’Brother Where Art Thou? In both, the name is a reference to the Odyssey. I think the Gorfeins said that the Ulysses developed new stripes, yet found his way home. Similar to Llewyn’s tortuous journey where he has developed some new emotional scars, but found his way back to where he started. Which brings us to the film’s conclusion. What message do you think the Coen brothers were hoping to convey with the narrative trick at the end of the film?

Zac: Don’t watch trailers. This has been a public service announcement.

I think the repeat of the beginning, which was actually the end, could be there for a couple reasons. It could show how Llewyn has learned from his mistakes and has made small changes in his life. In the initial perspective, you think you are watching a spectacular fall from grace, starting with getting punched by some weird person, but you are in fact watching a rebuilding process enabling Llewyn to be at his best. Another interpretation is that Llewyn’s life is never going to get better and he is stuck in a cycle of shit.

But I view the ending about as hopeful as possible; he did his best, he is an incredible performer, he’s not going to quit, but sadly that will never matter. He’s just not lucky enough.

You can look at the film as a social commentary. Challenging that Republican fallacy that if you are great you will have the best life possible. Right wingers don’t like to believe that luck plays a part in their success, they are too insecure to think anyone helped them along the way (that is unless Jesus and the Holy trio are involved). The film shows just how arbitrary the difference can be between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’ Sometimes you don’t have as much control of your station in life as you think. Llewyn, obviously, doesn’t always help his cause, but if Dylan doesn’t perform that same night, how high can Llewyn go. It’s clearly not a fallacy that being an asshole will hold you back from success, our upper class is full of them.

What say you about the ending, before you dive into my other ramblings?

Grant: First off, I think it is brilliant to have our protagonist punished before we even know his crimes. It helps us connect with a character who feels like the world has betrayed him. Anyway, I believe that the loop signifies his inability to succeed and find happiness. For me it helped illustrate how he will keep making the same mistakes over and over. Another abortion, more pissed off friends, yet he finds another couch at the end of the day.

Zac: This could totally be the case, I thought of this as well, I just didn’t want to steal all the angles.

Grant: I do find your more optimistic interpretation interesting; it would be nice to end the film on an ambiguous upbeat note, but I just didn’t see it the first time around. Regardless, it was an inventive and effective way to end the film.

Regarding Llewyn’s inability to find success, I don’t think that Dylan performing that night prevented him from getting his big break. In fact, wouldn’t he have more opportunities after Dylan’s career takes off? When a new type of musician hits the mainstream, usually it sparks interest in the entire genre. Maybe things aren’t so bad. “Just look at that parking lot, Larry!”

Anyway, I think we both believe that Dylan is used in the film to show the success that Llewyn could have had. But I think your political reading is held back by the fact that Llewyn wasn’t a damn careerist! He wasn’t in it for the money, he was in it for the art. He could have changed his music to create a wider appeal. And instead of showing disdain for those around him, he could have shared inauthentic pleasantries within the music industry. However, he stayed true to his vision and his beliefs, and as a result, he continued to struggle for acclaim. But, being an asshole with bad luck also might have contributed to his struggles.
While I didn’t find the film as enjoyable as other Coen efforts, it was still a very interesting film. Do you have any closing thoughts?

Zac: Keep listening to that soundtrack, see it again, and I want to hear what you have to say. I think a second viewing might win you over.

Grant: I will definitely catch up with the film again. But, I was thinking that I should listen to the album less, lately I have found myself compelled to sing “Please Mr. Kennedy-UH-OH” at inopportune times.

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