January 23, 2018

Posted December 26, 2013 by D. K. Holm

What have filmmakers got against cats? Among the many onscreen kitten killings are Donald Sutherland throwing a cat against a wall in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900. Before that, the villains in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs hang the family feline in a closet. Now the Coen Brothers get into the act. In their new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, a folksinger in the early 1960s is burdened with an unwelcome kitty to which he feels more loyalty then he does to most of his friends, family, and employers – at least for a while.

In fact, the cat plays a minor-seeming but in reality significant role in revealing Llewyn Davis’s personality. Davis meets the cat one morning after borrowing for the night the couch of a well-off academic couple, the Gorfeins, on the upper West Side. The cat escapes the apartment, and then Davis is locked out. He carries around the pet for several days while trying to reach the couple via telephone, but then the cat escapes again, whereupon, he avoids confronting his hosts. Later, while having a fight with an ex-lover, he sees the cat outside their café and grabs it again. However, when he finally returns the pet it proves to be a female rather than the male they call Ulysses (who, like his Greek namesake, eventually manages to find his way home alone). Now he is stuck with a new, feral cat, burdensome especially during a side trip to Chicago for an audition at the Gate of Horn. But his travel mates are so offensive he abandons their car — and the cat — on a freezing highway. Circumstances being what they are in a Coen Brothers film, on the return trip Davis sees the cat along the same stretch of highway — and promptly runs over it. Stricken, Davis watches as the animal flees into the woods, and the viewer assumes that the cat will die shortly, while Davis does nothing but stand there. His passivity and inability to act quickly and rationally in any situation is captured in the moment.

In short, the thread of the cat is in miniature a version of Davis’s larger problems with life, as well as his problems with others. When he abandons the cat he also, or at least almost, loses the sympathy of the viewer — just as most of his friends and family lose their compassion or patience with him.

Though Inside Llewyn Davis takes place over the course of a week or so, a lot of backstory can be gleaned through dialogue. Thus we learn that Davis once had a partner named Mike Timlin. The Gorfeins have a copy of the disc, Timlin and Davis, in their stash of folk records. Davis plays the record, hearing their “hit,” “Fare Thee Well” (Marcus Mumford subs for Timlin). Unfortunately, Timlin threw himself off a bridge. We come to understand that Davis has been out of sorts since then then, and his “relationship” with the cat is simply a variation on what we can imagine happened between Davis and Mike. Most reviewers have been as dismissive or critical of Davis as his friends in the film. But he seems more like a hapless, lost person, adrift since the death of his partner after recording only one album. Perhaps also he is feeling guilt. Just as with the cat, he protected his depressed partner for a while, but eventually abandoned him, too, resulting in the abrupt suicide. The Coen Brothers are often viewed as cold directors who despise their characters. Here, at least, however, they seem to show a great deal of sympathy for Davis, an understanding of his self-defeating rages at a society in which he no longer fits. Perhaps also their sympathy has a personal element. At root, the invisible story behind the surface story of the film concerns a destroyed partnership. Perhaps the film is an exploration of what it would be like if one of the Coen brothers were to lose the other. What would happen to the survivor? How would he cope? If true, the Coen Brothers are pursuing the theme, as usual, indirectly.

The film is perfectly cast, from lead actor Oscar Isaac all the way down to a brief cameo by F. Murray Abraham. All of the singers are entertaining, and some have a beautiful voices. This makes an interesting contrast with their offstage persona. For example  Jean (Carey Mulligan) is angelic on stage but foul mouth and angry offstage as she hectors Davis and continually calls him an asshole. As often with the Coen Brothers, they are interested in how people speak: the language or slang used by the characters, their different modes of communication, and how their speech contrasts with, or is a construction disguising, the inner self.

At a couple of dinner parties Davis crashes, the guests are perfect physical types of the setting’s times, especially the Gorfeins’s Columbia University colleagues. That may be one of the “problems” that mainstream viewers have with the Coens. They are doing what theater and film directors have done for decades, which is to cast physical types as a shorthand for personalities. In this day and age, however, the practice looks like stereotyping and reductivism, if not sometimes racism. Inside Llewyn Davis offers a crack of the door into the soul of the Coens, where these “types” become not severe judgments but reflective mirrors beaming their potential fears and fates.