The Un-Hep Cat
While wandering around New York City, broke and homeless, misanthropic Llewyn Davis, the hero of the new Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, stops in front of a one-sheet advertising Walt Disney’s 1963 film, The Incredible Journey, about two dogs and a cat trekking through the Canadian wilderness to finally arrive home. Post-modern filmmakers, the Coens place teasing references to other films within their work in order to highlight different dimensions of their characters and stories than would otherwise be available. For example, by placing a clip from 1953’s Flight to Tangier on a television in No Country for Old Men, the Coens cheekily demonstrate that the much-lauded novel by Cormac McCarthy has almost an identical plot to a long since forgotten Hollywood film.
In the case of Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens demonstrate that their wanderer’s relationship to Disney’s lost pets is of greater significance than the blockbuster playing one theatre over, Saving Mr. Banks, a film quite literally about the making of Mary Poppins. Furthermore, rather than remaining focused on the relationship between P.L. Travers’ novel and the Disney film, the modus operandi of Saving Mr. Banks, Inside Llewyn Davis spins intertextually outward, linking Davis’ relationship to the lost pets to other Coen movies, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Homer’s The Odyssey, among other things.
At the beginning of the film, we see Davis crashing at his Columbia University professor friends’ house. As he leaves in the morning, he inadvertently lets their cat out. When the door slams behind him and locks, Davis has no choice but to carry the cat around New York City with him as he visits his ne’er-do-well manager’s office. The film’s greatest shot has the cat sitting with Davis on the subway. The cat’s image is reflected in the train window as he watches the subway stops zip by. Unlike Davis, who seems numb to the world, the cat is properly mesmerized by the speed of human life.
Shortly thereafter, the cat escapes onto the streets of New York, and Llewyn cannot find him. After having delayed telling his friends, Mitch and Lillian Gorfein, Llewyn seemingly serendipitously finds the cat on the street. However, when he brings the cat back to the professors’ house, Lillian screams in horror that this is not their cat; in fact, Davis did not even rescue a cat of the correct gender. As with every other relationship in the film, Davis seemingly destroys this one, as he deeply insults his friends, refusing to sing despite the peace it brings to them: the Gorfein’s are the parents of Davis’ singing partner, whose tragic suicide has left Davis emotionally and artistically at sea.
At the end of the film, Davis returns to the Gorfein’s apartment to make amends. Just as he is about to apologize, Lillian hugs him, and shows them their cat, who miraculously showed up at their door one morning. At this point we come to learn that the cat’s name is Ulysses. As opposed to his cat familiar, Davis is clearly not Homer’s Ulysses: he has no place to come home to, nor would he be able to function there if he did. Inside Llewyn Davis is the bleakest Coen Brothers movie to date: like Jack Kerouac’s wanderers in On the Road, he is traveling in circles and doomed. John Goodman plays a heroin-addicted musician who recalls his role as the cyclops in the Coens’ adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. In the midst of a driving from New York to Chicago to attempt to get a gig, Davis merely abandons Goodman’s Roland Turner, asleep at night in the backseat of a car at the side of the highway.
Inside Llewyn Davis shares with other Coen Brothers movies an interest in reconstructing post-war America. In The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coens investigated the man in the gray flannel suit dynamics of Manhattan in the 1950s. In their new film, they examine the importance of folk music in the early 1960s. Davis is one of the Coens’ most fascinating characters. While Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man is a passive figure to whom Job-like absurdities occur, Davis is a complexly misanthropic character who is incapable of connecting with any other human being.
In a pivotal scene, Davis finds himself stranded in Chicago. Having heard that a powerful impresario hired Al Cody, a hick musician whom Davis derides, he decides to audition, desperate for money. F. Murray Abraham plays Bud Grossman, a significant figure in the world of music and cinema; this is, after all, the Salieri who killed Mozart in Amadeus. Davis sings Grossman a beautiful folk song. However, Grossman responds indifferently: “I don’t see a lot of money here.” When confronted with his support for the less talented Cody, Grossman explains, “he connects with people.” Of course, this is Davis’ problem: melancholically attached to his dead partner, Davis cannot connect with anyone.
Every time Davis has a chance at making a human connection, he opts for isolation. Early in the film, Davis learns that his former girlfriend, for whom he paid for an abortion, never went through with the procedure. He thus learns that he has a two-year old infant. The would-be abortionist tells Davis that the mother now lives in Akron. On his way back from Chicago to New York, Davis drives right by the exit in Ohio that would take him to his progeny. Shortly thereafter, while Davis is listening to opera in the car while driving through the night, he hits an animal. He stops the car and sees the blood on the front grill of the car’s engine. He watches the wounded animal crawl away, without moving to do anything. Whatever chance Llewyn had to connect his story to the happy ending of Disney’s Incredible Journey wanders off into the forest to die.
Inside Llewyn Davis is an anti-Odyssey, about how stasis destroys a talented young man. While A Serious Man ends its depiction of the American 1960s in a state of limbo, as a tornado threatens the lives of the film’s central characters, Inside Llewyn Davis needs no such theatrics. Early in the film, Llewyn performs with an up and coming folk singer, Jim (played by Justin Timberlake). It is clear that the novelty song they record, “Please Mr. Kennedy” is going to be a huge hit. However, Llewyn signs the royalty rights over for $200 so that he can pay for another abortion. Inside Llewyn Davis is so understated, so powerful for what it doesn’t need to say or film, that we don’t need even need to hear the cruelties of late 1960s’ treatment of Davis. He is a doomed Ulysses, who despite having already lived for decades, hasn’t even yet left Troy.
– Walter Metz