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