Halfway through the Coen Brother’s latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, Llewyn Davis, a folk singer played by Oscar Issac, travels to Chicago to meet with an music producer named Bud Grossman. As he strums out The Death of Queen Jane on his guitar, and as Grossman looks on without expression, we realize what the stakes are. Grossman can make or break Llewyn Davis’s career. We also realize that there’s something very familiar about the actor who plays Bud Grossman. It’s F. Murray Abram, Antonio Salieri himself, the iconic character from Milos Foreman’s classic film Amadeus.
Llewyn Davis is no Mozart, but he’s no Salieri either. Rather, he’s a combination of the worst qualities of both. Like Salieri, he’s a competent, if uninspired musician. Like Mozart, he’s an obnoxious social misfit. This makes him that most unhappy of mortals, a man with no real artistic talent, no inherited money, and yet, in spite of it all, a man with a genuine artistic calling. Llewyn Davis drifts through Greenwich Village sleeping on friends couches, borrowing money, picking up a few dollars here and there with an “open hat” gig at the Gaslight Cafe, and periodically toying with the idea of going back to sea as a merchant seaman. He’s a loser, and he knows it.
But is Llewyn Davis a fake? Is he a sincere artist who simply lacks talent, or is he a genuine loser using an artistic calling to justify his laziness and lack of direction? You can make the case either way.
On the side of “genuine loser using an artistic calling to justify his laziness and lack of direction,” you can argue that he has no real enthusiasm for folk music, an art form that, unlike Jazz, has a low barrier to entry. All you really need is a guitar, three or four chords, and a few sincere ideas. Davis has three or four cords, and he can hold a tune, but he seems to be without politics or any desire to uplift the world around him. When Bud Grossman rejects him as a lead singer, he’s easily discouraged and decides to give up the profession altogether. That’s not what a real artist does. Music, for a real folk singer, wouldn’t be an end in and of itself. It would be a way of expressing an idea. A real artist wouldn’t care what a Bud Grossman thought.
Sadly, however, Llewyn Davis isn’t a fake. That would make it too easy. He could play the guitar for awhile, take advantage of some no strings attached sex, then get a real job and work his way into the middle-class. Davis does, in fact, have one sincere idea, the idea of himself as an artist. He has no idea what he wants to say, but he wants to say something, and he wants to say it now, or tomorrow, or whenever he can figure it out. He’s damned to the hell of an unsuccessful music career, which he cannot escape, however hard he tries. However abrasive he becomes, his friends always forgive him. He can always find a couch to sleep on. He loses his temper at The Gaslight Cafe, heckles another performer, gets tossed out onto the sidewalk by the bouncer, but, a few days later, the owner welcomes him back with open arms. Even Bud Grossman, as discouraging as he is, still offers him a job as a backup singer for another act. And then there’s the cat.
Ulysses the cat, the orange tabby who belongs to Davis’s friend Mitch Gorfein, a Columbia professor who lets him sleep on the couch in his apartment on the upper west side, is arguably the star of Inside Llewyn Davis. If Davis has a spirit animal, it’s Ulysses. He’s dependent on the kindness of his friends, yet an uncontrollable free spirit. He periodically runs away, yet always comes back. He’s that annoying presence Davis constantly feels compelled to chase down and protect, the symbol of his artistic calling, the one thing that humanizes him.
Llewyn Davis is the artist as house cat. Jean, another folk singer played by the bitter, and almost unrecognizably American Carey Mulligan, has had an affair with Davis. She’s pregnant and needs the money for an abortion. She spends so much time verbally abusing Davis, the abortion also serving as a metaphor for his artistic sterility, that we begin to wonder why she ever slept with this aimless loser in the first place. But then Davis spies Ulysses, who had escaped from Jean’s downtown apartment the previous day. Davis takes off after him, scooping him up off the sidewalk, and bringing him back inside the Greenwich Village cafe where the pair had been fighting. Jean’s features soften. Running after Ulysses was an act of spontaneity that makes it impossible for her to continue to abuse Llewyn Davis. We begin to understand why, perhaps, she may have slept with him after all.
It is, in fact, Davis’s temper, his spontaneity, his inner, selfish, petulant grumpy house cat that redeems him. He may be thoroughly intimidated by Bud Grossman, devastated by the powerful man’s rejection, but, after Grossman throws him a bone, offers him the job as backup singer, he has enough character to turn it down. When Mitch Gorfein’s wife, the source of an occasional free meal, patronizingly demands that Davis sing on demand, Davis loses his temper and insults them both, thus giving up the free meals and the place to crash. After Pappi Corsicato, the owner of the Gaslight Cafe, lewdly suggests that he made Jean sleep with him in order to secure the privilege of singing at their open-mic shows, Davis explodes in a jealous rage and makes a spectacle of himself.
Inside Llweyn Davis is bracketed by two, almost identical scenes. Davis is performing in the Gaslight Cafe. Pappi Corsicato informs him that a “well dressed man” is waiting outside. Davis goes outside to see what it’s all about. The well-dressed man punches him in the face, kicks him in the stomach, throws him to the ground, then gets into a taxi cab and drives away. We realize that if Ulysses is the undaunted artistic drive that keeps Llweyn Davis playing his guitar, singing in tiny venues, and sleeping on friends couches, then the “well-dressed man” is the spirit of rejection, of self-doubt, of criticism, of all the forces in the world trying to shut him down and silence him. After Davis goes out the second time to meet the “well-dressed man,” we know that somehow, he’ll find the strength to continue. Somehow his friends will always forgive him. For some reason, he’s never going to quit playing music. He’ll work through the pain and pay the price. Whether or not that’s a good thing, whether he’ll eventually triumph or stay inside his constantly broke, couch surfing hell we can only guess at. More likely than not it will be the latter. Yet we applaud him anyway.