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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

spoiler alert: what’s really going on in Inside Llewyn Davis

llewyndavid

[lots of spoilers for Inside Llewyn Davis; spoiler-free review here]

We need to talk about Llewyn Davis.

Cuz there’s a thing that no one else has been talking about, that I’ve been able to find. There’s lots of discussion about what the cat means; I like Emma Dibdin at Digital Spy, who makes a convincing case for it being a representation of the spirit of Mike Timlin, the dead musical partner of early 1960s — ie, pre Dylan — folk singer Llewyn Davis. Sam Adams at IndieWire, in an essay about how the film isn’t about artistic failure (which seems to be the consensus opinion) but instead about mental depression, touches on the thing I want to talk about when he briefly refers to the film’s “circular structure [that] suggests a Sisyphean loop, a depressive Groundhog Day.” But he drops this as soon as he mentions it.

But that circular structure, that Sisyphean loop… it’s a huge thing, and it’s the thing I’ve been obsessing over. Joel and Ethan Coen didn’t simply craft a film with a circle-like structure but one that actually crosses back on itself to, at the end of the film, dump Llewyn back into events he has already lived. Llewyn Davis rewards multiple viewings — I’ve seen it three times now, and I need to see it again — but even on a first viewing, it’s impossible to miss the fact that the final scene of the film, in which Llewyn has a violent confrontation with a man in the alleyway behind Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Cafe, is a duplication of a nearly identical scene at the beginning of the film. The only significant difference is the music emanating from the cafe. (And there is significance in that musical difference, which I’ll return to.) These two scenes are not about suggesting that Llewyn is the sort of guy who rubs so many people the wrong way that getting beaten up is a regular thing for him: the exchange of dialogue between the two men is specifically referencing Llewyn’s particular heckling of another musician the evening before, and it’s the very same dialogue in both scenes, with the same progression of punches landing on Llewyn. Llewyn Davis isn’t about a guy stuck in a rut where he keeps doing the same stupid shit all over again. It’s about a guy literally stuck in a time loop.

Okay: I say “literally,” but I mean something in between “literally” and “metaphorically.” That nebulous hint of the fantastical or even the science-fictional falls into one of the beautiful aspects about many of the Coens’ films, in how they defy acceptance at face value, and defy assignment to concrete reality… or, at least, there’s stuff there that allows an exploration beyond the concrete. Llewyn Davis isn’t a science fiction film, but it hints at a SFnal concept that serves to underscore the themes it’s exploring… though we could just as easily call it a religious concept encroaching on a film that isn’t in any way religious.

The point where the loop restarts is perfectly plain. We come in at the end of a loop as the film opens. The first scene in the film has Llewyn playing a gig at the Gaslight, after which the owner, Pappi, tells him that Llewyn’s “friend” is waiting outside, who turns out to be the guy who beats up Llewyn. And then, as Llewyn lies on the ground in the alley — this is the key thing — the alleyway dissolves into the hallway of the apartment of his friends the Gorfeins:

llewyndissolve1

llewyndissolve2

I think this is the only dissolve in the entire film. (One reason I need to watch the movie again is to confirm this.) In any case, I’m pretty sure that there is no transition from one scene to another that is as visually dramatic as this.

We’re meant to believe that this is the next morning, after the beating, when Llewyn wakes up on the Gorfeins’ couch, where he has crashed. But it isn’t. Time has rewound, and while that alleyway beating was Friday night, Llewyn is now back at the beginning of that week, or perhaps the previous weekend. (Another reason to rewatch: gotta count the days.) And we see everything that leads up to the beating… although, on a first viewing, we have no idea until we get to that alleyway again that we’ve jumped back in time. Unless we’re paying very close attention. There’s at least one clue prior to the second iteration of the alley scene that events are not progressing in a linear way: A few days after (or so it appears on a first viewing) Llewyn played at the Gaslight and got beat up in the alley, his friend Jean tells him that she got Pappi to agree to let him play on Friday night, a day or two away, and Llewyn doesn’t believe her, because, he says, “I was there less than a month ago,” implying that Pappi doesn’t like to have the same artists back in the space of a month. And if Llewyn had, from his perspective, played just a few days earlier, he would have said “I was there less than a week ago” or “I was there a few days ago.” So our perception that he was there only a few days earlier cannot be accurate.

In my review of the film, I called it “a treadmill of nostalgia and regret, and the horror of second-guessing oneself.” Over the week that we follow Llewyn, there are things that happen in this period that strike him right then as missed opportunities or wrong turns taken, as when he learns that a girlfriend whom he hasn’t seen in several years chose not to have the abortion he had paid for after she got pregnant by him, which comes with the one-two smack of learning he has a child that he didn’t previously know about and also that the girlfriend obviously thought so little of him that she didn’t want him around to help raise the kid. (Later in the week, he bypasses a potential chance to reconnect with her.) There are also things that happen that we can easily conclude will, in the months and years beyond this week, look like missed opportunities, as when he turns down royalties in favor of an upfront payment for performing on the novelty song “Please Mr. Kennedy” that it’s later hinted will be a big hit. So it’s easy to interpret the film as something like a much older Llewyn later looking back at this key week in life and obsessing over how it could have gone differently for him if only he’d done this instead of that. The time-loop quality of how the story is structured fits in perfectly with the idea that an older Llewyn keeps replaying this week in his mind.

But it was during my second viewing, when I went into the film knowing that it was looping back on itself and I was on the lookout for more clues to what this was really about, that it struck me: What if Llewyn is dead? What if he committed suicide and is stuck in a sort of purgatory of his own making? And depressing as it might sound, this is the most satisfying explanation I’ve run into yet. (The really beautiful thing about this film is that none of the interpretations I’ve come across yet precludes any of the others. Including the “Llewyn is actually dead” one.)

Once I started looking for them, I saw little hints to back up my supposition. The very first words Llewyn says onscreen — he sings them, in fact — are “Hang me oh hang me / I’ll be dead and gone.” I mean, sure, this is folk music, not the cheeriest of musical genres, but the references to death in the songs we get here are so perfectly metaphoric to Llewyn’s situation… and some of the references that aren’t ostensibly about death start to seem to be about death anyway in this light. The name of the album that Llewyn and his partner had released is If We Had Wings (like the wings we supposedly get issued after we die?). And the song that lent the title includes this line: “Life ain’t worth living without the one you love.” A music promoter who listens to Llewyn perform solo suggests that he get back together with his former partner. But Mike killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge (we never learn why, and it could be that even Llewyn doesn’t understand what drove him to suicide). Might Llewyn have taken that advice to join his partner? “I’m so fuckin’ tired,” Llewyn complains about his artistic struggles. “I’m out.” He means he’s out of music… but might he have meant something more final?

(Obsessing over the soundtrack [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] for me has been as essential as obsessing over the film itself. So much death!)

There are “lighter” references to death, too. When the secretary at Llewyn’s record label tells him that Mel, the label boss, has gone to a funeral, Llewyn snarks, “That man goes to a lot of funerals.” Could he have gone to Llewyn’s, too?

Other references throughout the film allude to classically epic journeys, such as an endless Sisyphean odyssey through one’s own failures could be considered. The Gorfeins’ cat, Llewyn eventually discovers, is named Ulysses. The club in which Llewyn performs for the aforementioned promoter is called The Gate of Horn (which was a real venue of the Chicago folk scene of the 1950s and 60s); a gate of horn in classical tradition is one through which true dreams are said to pass. Is Llewyn experiencing a true dream of his life? That might be the safest interpretation of all.

Intriguingly, the looping Llewyn is experiencing isn’t like the one in Groundhog Day, where everything is identical with each iteration. (Also, Llewyn seems unaware that he is looping.) In the bits that repeat — which is only that scene in which Llewyn sings “Hang Me” and then gets beaten up in the alley — not everything is the same as the first iteration. The big difference between the two versions of the gig+alley scene is that the second time around, Bob Dylan — although he is not named — takes the stage after Llewyn:

llewyndylan

He was not there the first time. So the second time Llewyn gets beaten up in the alley, Dylan’s music is emanating from the club when previously it had been some other (indistinct) music. Interestingly, Dylan is performing his own take on a song that has figured into Llewyn’s career, solo and with Mike, called “Fare Thee Well”; Llewyn sings it several times over the course of the film, and we hear his duet version with Mike played on vinyl. It’s the song that supplied the If We Had Wings title, and coming from Dylan, it works on two levels: it’s waving good-bye to Llewyn’s brand of folk music as Dylan’s swoops in and becomes enormously popular, and it could be another hint that Llewyn has actually died, getting bid farewell from mortal life.

This just occurred to me as I was writing the previous paragraph: maybe, rather than killing himself, Llewyn actually died in that alleyway. The beating that we witness doesn’t appear to be anywhere near bad enough to be fatal… but maybe we can’t fully trust Llewyn’s memory. Maybe a faulty memory is the reason why a few other things don’t match even within the one full iteration of the week. There’s one night at the Gaslight early in the week, for instance, when Jean and her husband Jim are on stage, when Pappi says to Llewyn, “That Jean, I’d like to fuck her,” suggesting that he hasn’t. But a few days later — apparently actually only a few days later — on the second go-round of the gig+alley scene, Pappi says he has fucked Jean, and not like, “Hey, remember what I wished for the other day? I got it!” Pappi seems to be referring to something that happened ages ago. And there’s also a moment when Llewyn sees a poster for the film The Incredible Journey:

llewynjourney

which wasn’t released until 1963. But we know this week is in February 1961 — we see the date on the form Llewyn signs when he turns down the royalties on “Please Mr. Kennedy.”

The Coen Brothers don’t do anything by accident. Of course, sometimes their deliberate choices are designed to do nothing but mess with us. So both of these seeming incongruities might not mean anything. But where’s the fun in that? Trying to make all these different threads and loose ends work together is fun. Even if, in this case, “fun” means concluding that the most thematically satisfying solution to the puzzle is that Llewyn is, in fact, dead.

Sorry, Llewyn.


posted in:
spoiler alert
  • Christine

    Great analysis, MaryAnn. I loved the dreamy, haunting quality of this film. Now I need to see it again while keeping your points in mind.

    Reading your piece made me think of the line from “Hang Me” – “Wouldn’t mind the hangin’, but the layin’ in the grave so long,” suggesting that the narrator will still be conscious after death and has to endure the tediousness of lying in a grave forever, just like Llewyn’s tedious existence.

    “Interestingly, Dylan is performing his own take on a song that has figured into Llewyn’s career, solo and with Mike, called ‘Fare Thee Well'”

    “Farewell,” the Bob Dylan song on the soundtrack (assuming it’s the same Dylan song used in the film, I can’t remember) is not the same as the one Llewyn sings (“Fare Thee Well,” the “If I had wings” song). But of course it’s significant that they both have similar titles/themes.

  • Dylan’s version is basically the same song taken to a pop-rock level. Which is why it was a hit, and Llewyn’s would never have been. :->

    Yeah, that other line from “Hang Me” is highly suggestive, too, that the movie is Llewyn contemplating his life from beyond death.

  • John

    Fantastic critique. Just finished watching the movie and found your review, which was waiting for me! I was thinking of Llewyn entering an alternate universe, but the the big D is the ultimate passage.

  • So, I watched the film again last night. There are two other dissolves that suggest, I think, shifts in time, because there don’t seem to be enough days for all the stuff that happens to happen if it’s linear. (And there might be another explanation for Pappi’s commentary on what he’d like to do to Jean.) But that’s a post for another day. Or maybe it’s a book…

  • leah

    this analysis is fascinating – I’m anxious to see this again and your interpretation has ratcheted that up to frantic now, I can’t wait.

  • Brian Garrison

    Assuming Llewyn is dead, I believe that the Merchant Marine is a metaphor for Charon, the boat man. Traditionally, one who was unable to pay to be ferried to the land of the dead would wander the shores of the living for 100 years. In Lewyn’s case, he is stuck in the time loop.

  • Apesbrain

    The last time he sang this song was his best as he rocked it up quite a bit and showed a lot of emotion. Then as he’s heading out to get beat he stops and looks back at Dylan while wearing an expression like maybe he’s seeing the future and it could have been his.

  • Brilliant! He doesn’t have the required paperwork, so he can’t board the ship.

  • Yes!

  • Thomas Pynchon

    Perhaps Llewyn is in hades? The brothers love the odyssey and you can see that maybe John goodmans character is the devil as just one example of this hypothesis. I have not check this idea in the film, it just came to me when I was reading your wonderful analysis. Though…..I think I may be on to something here…maybe that is why he is stuck in the loop? It’s his hell because he has to relive all of the poor choice he made? Not sure…I’m just blabbing now…I like the merchant marine idea as well

  • Thomas Pynchon

    All the Sisyphean loop talk made me realize that this helps to prove more of an Greek mythology connection…..Sisyphus

  • RogerBW

    So is there a way off the loop? Is it a post-mortem Groundhog Week, with Davies running through the sequence each time until he works out what he did wrong? Or is this his hell, that he is never able to do so?

  • I don’t know. The ending could be interpreted as him having escaped. Or not.

  • adam pannell

    hi, just watched it and started looking on the net for some help with interpretation of the movie? yes some excellent theory’s, i will watch it again tomorrow. im just thinking back, is there a repeating theme (b4 the loop ending) ??? he visits every one twice , 2 pregnancies, keeps loosing the cat and did he sing an extra song at the end when the loop started?? from adam

  • Johnathan Henning

    Yeah, the movie did seem to be a kind of hellish time loop film. I found the multiple doppelgangers to be a bit creepy as well. Many of the characters – the professor’s wife and the folk singer Llewyn heckles, the silent driver and the goofy singer Llewyn crashes with, the cats, of course – all looked the same and Llewyn kept running into the same circumstances doubled as well.

  • rurugby

    Still hated the movie. Hated “A Serious Man” too. Both seemed sad and pointless to me. Generally a big fan of the Coen brothers but only finished these two movies because they are from the Coens. Bad movies for me. Llewyn *1/2, Serious Man *.

  • Danielm80

    Thanks. MaryAnn has been conducting a reader survey. Once 100 people have submitted their ratings of the movie, she’ll post a table with the results.

  • I didn’t imagine that my explanation would make the film seem cheery!

  • Denis Doucette

    Great analysis. Thanks for sharing

  • Julia K

    I agree with you I think Llewyn is dead and is reliving that week. Thanks a lot for your review. After I watched it I was searching to see if anyone else came to the same conclusion and except for your review I found that everyone was obsessed with that cat! I found the time loop way more intriguing.

  • Lana Winters

    Magnificent critique. Have seen this movie at least three times and wondered why I intensely disliked LD upon first viewing & then literally cried for him on the next.
    Makes sense that we are seeing a troubled soul with nothing to do but regret regret regret for eternity. How painful! How sad.

  • Dani

    Bob Dylan also appears the first time (we dn’t hear him singing, but he is there)

  • Dani

    I don’t think he’s dead. He “is” the cat (Ulysses), like in the Odyssey, he has to go through a tough journey to get to his place in life. The loop is just a symbol of repetition, indicating that in life you don’t get things easily

  • Constable

    Moksha

  • iron_mountain

    Really appreciate this interpretation. Thank you. Makes more sense than anything I could fathom from it. The Ulysses type joruney through the land of the dead makes total sense. Some great observations there.I wondered if the cat was some kind of Pilgrim’s Progress type burden too. And wondered if that weird silent guy driving the car was the ferryman to Hades(Charron?). All blind guesses though.

  • iron_mountain

    “Au revoir” = until we see eachother again.
    Love this discussion! This movie’s been biugging the bejesus out of me since I first saw it last year. Gonna rewatch it again soon now I read this.

  • Ha! It hadn’t occurred to me that Garrett Hedlund could be Charon!

  • iron_mountain

    Well after I wrote that I read where someone else had suggested the Merchant Marine could be Charon so maybe that’s a better metaphor after all. It’s too infuriating not knowing all the references. Only one thing for it. Going to have to kidnap the Coens, Classics and Bible Studies professors, and have them explain it to me along with A Serious Man.

  • iron_mountain

    Forgive me for posting on this again but your

    intepretation had a big impact on me and I was moved to read a little bit about Purgatory and Charon, and some ideas occurred to me re-watching the film with your ideas in mind. Could all be blind stabs in the dark but thought I’d float them by you anyway in case. I appreciate it’s a year since you wrote this so maybe too long to be going over old ground and that’s fine too:

    Could be coincidence but his unaborted child is supposed to be in Akron? I can’t see a direct connection but Charon takes people down the rivers of Acheron and Styx to the underworld, and he encounters Akron on the way back from Chicago:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charon_(mythology)

    I noticed at the start of the movie the train ride was like a descent, with station numbers going from 96 > 79 > 66 > 28 > 23 > 18. I read something about souls rising and falling through purgatory repeatedly, and I think may be symbolised in this journey up and down from the fancy, warm, well lit flat, always stocked with food and friendly people, down in the elevator to these spartan, grey, poorly lit, less accommodating flats with minimal comforts. Perhaps even an allegory for Dante’s Divine Comedy where Purgatory has 7 terraces, one for each sin to be purged, and the garden of Eden at the top?

    To that same end, though possibly very tenuous, as Llewyn gets into the car with Roland Turner and Johnny 5, a sign shows “Rapid Transit Up and Downtown” followed by a list of locations including “South Ferry”. It’s so brief it’s hard to believe it could be deliberate.

    Not sure how his father fits into this and whether the merchant marine is some kind of limbo for those who give up trying to expiate their sins and fall asleep in purgatory, forgetting where they are or what they’re doing.

    I wonder if the cat was some kind of test that he failed, like he was the cat’s shepherd through dark places.
    Might explain why after his double fall from grace at the flat, having been busted on losing the cat under his protection, it then fades to him down in the bowels of 7th Avenue (so presumably a fall from 96 down to 7 on the ladder?).

    I also wonder if Mike and Llewyn respectively symbolise the real life Llewyn and his separate dead soul. So what we are seeing is just the soul – the Inside of Llewyn Davis(if we can believe that was his real life name of course?).

    Not in line with this, but still, interestingly:

    “In Roman Catholic teachings, Saint Michael is one of the angels presumed present at the hour of death. Traditionally, he is charged to assist the dying and accompany their souls to their particular judgment, bring them to purgatory and afterwards, presenting them to God upon their entrance to heaven”

    So perhaps that’s the Mike connection?

    I wondered Charon might be a cobimnation of Roland Turner and Johnny 5. I read how Charon had an unkempt beard and demanded payment for the journey(the petrol Roland demands).

    Perhaps fame/appearances equate to steps up the ladder out of purgatory gained through expiation of sins. The boxes of records symbolise efforts that didn’t qualify. Which is why Bud Grossman wasn’t interested in hearing recordings and was still left unimpressed by the real thing as Llewyn still hadn’t quite got it yet. The soldier however had what it took, and was working his way through purgatory pretty quickly, much to Llewyn’s envy.

    I got the feeling the Bud Grossman character was some kind of gatekeeper out of Purgatory, weighing up if people had sufficiently expunged themselves of their sins yet.
    He advises him he needs a partner and the lady in the nice flat does too. This kind of suggests to me that he has to somehow reconcile his soul with what he was in real life(Mike) before he can sing in the complete voice required to graduate out of Purgatory. So they’re trying to drop him helpful hints but he takes it as being cruelly mocked.

    I wonder if the one sin he keeps tripping up on is pride – he is vain and blind to his remaining sins and feels like he has been unfairly held back, and resents those who are unjustly getting preferential treatment; which ironically keeps him trapped in this self-propagating purgatorial experience. The question remains will he ever get out?

    I’d also add that having read all this and watched it I now have this paranoia about whether I am in purgatory and this was some kind of huge hint! Arrrggghhhhh!!!

  • I think you may be straining too hard to find very specific connections that may not necessarily be there. :-) The Coens are never so concrete.

  • iron_mountain

    Ah well, takes all sorts ;)

  • I’m just gently suggesting that therein lies the road to madness. :-) If you’re not careful.

  • iron_mountain

    Yeah I get it. Thanks for being gentle :)

  • Thomas Siebert

    Not sure if he’s dead or just creatively dead, now that Dylan has hit the scene — the guy was spinning his wheels, but clinging to relevance and now that’s over.

    It’s also interesting how the artwork to the left of Dylan as he performs seems to morph into a skull. That creeped me out.

  • Rob Mc

    I think the reason viewers see the film multiple times is not to figure it out, though that may be part of it. The reason is because the world feels great, despite the tribulation. He has true talent, skill, love, friendship, an audience and the greatest city in the world. The writers are teaching that you can take away money, fame, comfort, even the friendliness of the person who loves you, and still your life is paradise.

  • I agree with what you say about wanting to live in the film. But I think Llewyn would disagree that his life is paradise! :-)

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