Inside Llewyn Davis commentary: A paradox of empathy?


Audiences should expect nothing short of brilliant from writer/director/producer/brother duo, Joel and Ethan Coen. The fraternal filmmakers have a rap sheet that reflects their special ability to convert everyday life into cinematic gold. Their most recent work, winner of the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Inside Llewyn Davis gives audiences an inside look at the 1960s Greenwich Village folk music scene via a week in the life of Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk musician. But expert cinematography, phenomenal music and reminiscent nods to New York folk culture aside, the film leaves something important to be desired in the heart of the viewer.

At the start of the film, Llewyn, a seasoned hitchhiker and couch-surfer, makes an unlikely friend while crashing at an acquaintance’s Upper West Side home: an orange cat named Ulysses. Over the course of one week, Llewyn develops a strange bond with the feline, whom he loses, rescues and eventually returns to its owners.

After finding the cat he thought to be Ulysses in what at the time appeared to be an uncanny strike of fortune, Llewyn delivers it to its loving owners (a Columbia sociologist and his wife), only to find that he recovered the wrong pet. He then adopts the unnamed cat and brings it along on an overnight road trip to meet with a music promoter in Chicago.

Following a profitless meeting with the unimpressed promoter, a wearied Llewyn hitches a ride back to New York by making a deal with a tired driver, agreeing to drive half of the journey. Along the way, the two travelers are caught in a blustery northeastern snowstorm. By this time, Llewyn has left not-Ulysses behind (Llewyn abandons the cat, leaving it in a car on the side of the road with one of his strung-out and unconscious former travel companions).

During his turn at the wheel, Llewyn passes the hometown of a former girlfriend, who he has just recently discovered bore his child (he had paid for an abortion two years back that never came to pass). Llewyn has a lamentable habit of unintentionally impregnating women. When this happens, he tries to do the “responsible” thing by scraping together money to pay for an abortion. In the most recent case his ex-lover, Jean (Carey Mulligan), confesses that she isn’t sure whether or not the child is Llewyn’s; she could be aborting a “perfectly good” child, but she’d rather abort than have Llewyn’s kid.

Burdened by the mistakes of his past, and distracted by the glowing lights of the town at night, Llewyn accidentally hits a cat that bears a striking resemblance to the previous two he’d bonded with and subsequently left behind over the past week. He pulls over to assess the damage only to catch a glimpse of the injured creature limping off into the woods. This crushes him, but he rolls on.

Inside Llewyn Davis received sterling reviews, and rightly so, but as much as I enjoyed the raw characters, stirring music and the glimpse into New York’s early folk era, I was disturbed when I realized that I felt more remorse for the cat than Llewyn’s abandoned and aborted children. How could I mourn the loss of a cat whose identity was virtually enigmatic? Was this effect an intentional move on the Coen brothers’ part? I believe it was. If so, then, what sort of statement were they trying to make?

In an article on, Film Editor, Catherine Shoard makes the observation that the Coens are “fond of failure,” opting for less-than-impressive protagonists as windows into the human condition. But despite Llewyn’s laziness and poor luck, he has a soul that protrudes through his unrefined, self-accompanied folk ballads.

And what about the cats? Llewyn doesn’t even know their names or genders, but his persistent attempts to rescue them reflect what appears to be this intrinsic desire to care for the helpless. King’s alum, Tim Wainwright takes this notion a step further with one astute connection. In his article in The Atlantic Wainwright suggests that Llewyn is the cat—not in actuality, but in a clever, metaphorical, Coen brother sense.

Llewyn possesses the same visceral, wayfaring qualities as the pitiful cats he encounters. The tragedy, thus, lies in the fact that Llewyn is just as aimless and confused as his four-legged doppelgangers. In order to care for and connect with others, he must first remedy his own helplessness. No matter how earnest his attempts, Llewyn will continue to rediscover and abandon himself until he resolves to identify the source of his anguish and commit its name to memory.

Inside Llewyn Davis, which hit theaters early December, is still playing for a limited time at select cinemas! For tickets and showtimes, visit the film's website.