“And it is a journey that, although at times bordering on surreal, often echoes the very real feelings of anyone who has ever been unsure of their place in this world.”
On the surface, Inside Llewyn Davis appears to be a straightforward tale of an aimless man. But by the film’s closing scene, it is clear that the Coen’s have crafted a story not only complex in meaning, but one that also serves as an homage to nearly all of their film oeuvre.
Llewyn Davis began his musical career as one half of the Timlin and Davis duo. After Timlin’s suicide, Davis struggles to make a name for himself as a solo act, and is stuck playing the same small venues while also drifting from couch to couch, never able to stay in one place for more than a few days. As Davis leaves his most recent residence, the apartment of Mitch and Lillian Gorfein, he is followed by the Gorfein’s cat. Unable to re-enter their home, Davis gains a traveling companion as he makes his way to the apartment of fellow folk musicians Jim and Jean.
It is at Jim and Jean’s home that most of Davis’ insecurities, failures and flaws are revealed. It is clear that he often makes poor decisions, not fully considering their impact on anyone—including himself. While Jean adds even more troubles to Davis’ already bleak agenda, Jim provides him with a spot of hope with an offer to work on his newest song, “Please Mr. Kennedy.” At the song’s recording, Davis meets another musician, Al Cody, who also provides him with a potential career opportunity, as long as he doesn’t mind driving to Chicago with some of Cody’s acquaintances.
Davis clearly relies on other people to get him where he wants to be, and that’s partly because he doesn’t really know where he wants to be. He thinks he desires success as a folk singer, but his journey throughout the film suggests that he is only focusing on this life because he has not taken the time to consider any other life. Davis is not an instantly likeable protagonist, and his couch-hopping antics soon become annoying. In lesser hands, the film would likely fizzle before the first act. This film does not. The trajectory of Inside Llewyn Davis is echoed in Jim’s quirky song. While Davis and Jim are lead guitarists/singers of the song, Al Cody provides seemingly random “sound effects.” The practice version of the song first confuses Davis, but soon he catches on, and as the trio performs the odd tune, it goes from strange and slightly annoying to catchy and engrossing.
After this scene, the film becomes equally engrossing, particularly when Davis goes on his road trip with Cody’s friends, the verbose Roland Turner and the silently mysterious Johnny Five. It is also during this trip that the connections to other Coen works become clearer. By the end of the film, fans of the Coens will likely have a list of Coen references and similarities. There are shades of O, Brother, Where Art Thou?, sprinkled with dashes of Barton Fink. If Llewyn Davis were a film about a Motown artist rather than a folk musician, it is likely that “It’s the Same Old Song,” the recurring tune of Blood Simple., would be part of its soundtrack.
While knowledge of past Coen films adds richness to the experience of watching Llewyn Davis, it is not required to enjoy the depth of the film. The audience is introduced to Davis at a pivotal time in his life, a time where he only has two choices: Continue his aimless existence and repeat his mistakes, or accept that life does have more than one choice. His journey in making that choice is filled with just about every emotion: sadness, hopelessness, disgust, anger, relief, and love. And it is a journey that, although at times bordering on surreal, often echoes the very real feelings of anyone who has ever been unsure of their place in this world.
Review by Bethany Rose, Contributing Film Critic