Another comic masterpiece of idiosyncratic Americana by the Coen brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis spends a week in the life of sorry bastard Llewyn Davis, a character inspired by real-life, 1960s folk singer Dave Von Ronk. And what a bastard Llewyn truly is! Played by Oscar Isaac, he is a grumpy and judgmental ne’er-do-well, endlessly couch surfing at the homes of friends whom he continually alienates while struggling to survive as a solo act after his musical partner commits suicide. His one escape and redemption is folk music, which provides a contrast to his harsh life.
The film depicts Llewyn going through the unluckiest winter of his life, starting with him receiving a quick and merciless beating in an alleyway outside the infamous Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village after a gig, after which the film jumps back several days in time. Llewyn wakes up in his friends’ apartment and heads out, accidentally locking out their orange cat. This kicks off a persistent motif in the film as similar felines intersect with Llewyn on his journey through the folk music industry in 1961. Visiting his record manager, Llewyn discovers his new record has not been selling; thus, he has no income (“I don’t even have a winter coat!”). He then turns to his fellow folk-singing friends, Jean and Jim (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake), for a place to stay, only to find a seething Jean who believes Llewyn may have impregnated her. He also meets their friend, the polite Troy (Stark Sands), a talented and seemingly successful singer and soldier on furlough whom Llewyn detests on sight. When Troy performs at the Gaslight later that day, Llewyn regards him disapprovingly until Jim arrives and Llewyn slyly tries to get money for Jean’s abortion from her own oblivious husband (“Don’t tell Jean”). His caustic actions and attitude are juxtaposed to sweet, Southern gentleman Troy and mild, shirt-and-sweater-set Jim. Later, when Jim gets him a gig recording a ridiculously inane but catchy song, “Please, Mr. Kennedy,” Llewyn questions the abilities of the songwriter, which briefly offends his friend as it turns out that Jim wrote the song.
Llewyn’s generally negative treatment of people who are perceived as sell-outs or not living an angst-ridden, bohemian lifestyle like himself is quite hypocritical as he depends greatly upon them for money, food, and shelter. The middle-class Gorfeins, for example, act as Llewyn’s patrons, trading food and a bed for bragging rights to their boring, academic friends. Llewyn tries to assert his creative integrity around them, refusing to play music for their dinner guests (“I do this for a living. It’s not a fucking parlour game!”). But before long, he’s back at their door, smoothing things over. Llewyn also aggravates his relationship with Jim and Jean, putting their marriage in jeopardy by sleeping with Jean and barely hiding his distaste of Jim for writing “Please, Mr. Kennedy.” The couple’s stable relationship and living situation is anathema to what Llewyn believes. He describes financial stability and a lack of creative struggle to his sister as merely a state of “existing.” Therein lies Llewyn’s fatal flaw: his desire to live a life of perceived musical integrity, even if it kills him.
Subtle hints about the source of Llewyn’s disgruntled personality come in the form of people repeatedly bringing up Mike, his singing partner who committed suicide. Llewyn looks mournfully at the record cover for the duo’s album, “If We Had Wings,” which shows a photograph of the two singers, but he never speaks outright about his grief; instead, he tries as hard as he can to move on and make it as a solo artist, becoming irritated when people talk about Mike. At one point, he angrily yells at Mrs. Gorfein for singing the harmony of “Fare Thee Well,” a part sung originally by his deceased partner. To Llewyn’s annoyance, people also mention his name in conjunction to his father Hugh, who is not introduced until very late in the film. Llewyn visits him at a nursing home and it is clear that his father is not doing very well, barely showing any signs of recognition or awareness of his son singing in his room. Llewyn complains about his father’s state to his sister, which becomes a point of contention between them. It is unclear, however, if Llewyn has always been so ornery and self-destructive or if his friend’s death and his father’s failing health have made him exceptionally difficult to be around as of late.
Llewyn’s directionless and grim personal journey is not the sole focus of the film, however. In his travels, especially from New York to Chicago, the audience catches glimpses of the state of the American music scene of the ‘60s. His bizarre carpool with the repellent junkie and jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his valet, the laconic beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), is a caricature of the rivalry between folk music and other movements of the decade. The older musician, Roland, spouts vitriol at Llewyn throughout the car trip, insulting his appearance, his name, his career, and even his cat. Johnny, in his cold silence, also antagonizes Llewyn, barely acknowledging his presence and refusing to lend him a cigarette (“I’m all out,” he drawls while lighting a new one in the next shot). In Chicago, Llewyn finagles an audition with Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), the manager of the impressive Gate of Horn club. Laying it all out, Llewyn performs “The Death of Queen Jane” but in the end he is shot down by Bud who thinks Llewyn would work better in a group (“I don’t see a lot of money here”).
Quietly devastated, Llewyn hitchhikes back to New York. He decides to fall back to being a merchant marine again, officially giving up on his music career, but finds out that he doesn’t have the means to return to the union. Disappointed and tired, he goes to the Gaslight and takes out his frustration by heckling a new singing act after finding out that Jean slept with one of the Gaslight employees. The next day, Llewyn returns to perform, significantly before a Bob Dylan-esque musician takes the stage, foreshadowing a massive change in the folk music scene. A cowboy in the alleyway behind the building thrashes Llewyn for his heckling the night before and the audience finds themselves back to the beginning of the film.
The repetitive, circular structure of Llewyn’s journey is echoed in a few ways. The timeline of the film is cut so that it begins and ends with Llewyn being beaten outside the Gaslight after his performance. He also finds himself waking up on the Gorfeins’ sofa to find their cat, Ulysses, jumping onto his chest twice. The cat’s namesake alludes to the famous Greek hero who spent years trying to find safe passage home after the Trojan War. Over the course of the film, Llewyn travels from New York to Chicago and back. There are multiple shots of him travelling via the subway and car, leaving and returning to assorted friends’ apartments, repeating himself in his aimless, homeless lifestyle. His romantic relationship with Jean also echoes that with the never-seen Diane, both whom he slept with and then helped pay for their abortions. The song “Fare Thee Well” is sung and played repeatedly, but tellingly, the very last line of the film is “Au revoir”, which is less an ultimate “goodbye” but more of a “until we meet again”, which hints at a hopeful turn in Llewyn’s life.