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Watching Inside Llewyn Davis is enjoyable enough. The Coen brothers offer humor, music, drama and funny cat videos. But it’s not until after the movie, chewing over its characters, events, and emotions that I began to really be impressed.

Talent and Enemies

It’s the early 1960s. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a folk singer who lives in New York and plays at The Gaslight when nobody else will take him. The Coens take for granted that you will know and recognize vintage New York (which I don’t).

"It's the Gorfein's cat."
“It’s the Gorfein’s cat.”

Two important things happen at the film’s opening. First, Llewyn sings a song (“Hang Me Oh Hang Me”) in its entirety. It’s rare that a movie gives up 4 continuous minutes of screen time to a single performance, but the Coens do this more than once, to good effect. It’s not so much to make the music the focus, as to make the emotion behind the music the focus. Llewyn (and thus Isaac) is a proficient and expressive performer. Llewyn’s abrasive bitterness almost disappears when he sings, adding only a dark current of longing to his performance. (If you like the trend of full musical performances in films, check out an indie drama from this year called I Used to Be Darker, which reminded me of 2006’s Once.)

The other important thing that happens is that Llewyn goes into the alley to smoke, where he is assaulted by another man and chewed out for his behavior — a reference to something we don’t yet understand. The film then flashes back a week so that we can see how these two sides of Llewyn fit together.

Success and Failure

We learn that Llewyn is poor, down, and cynical. His ex-girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan, in a role that’s mostly shouting and harping) is pregnant, possibly with his child, and she wants an abortion. Since Llewyn lost his place at Jean’s he’s become a connoisseur of couches while he waits for payment from his out-of-touch agent Mel (Jerry Grayson and Sylvia Kauders are cluelessly funny as Mel and his secretary Ginny). One of the nicest couches open to Llewyn is at the Gorfein’s (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), sympathetic music lovers whose orange cat Llewyn accidentally locks out of the apartment and so has to take with him.

Llewyn had put out a well-received album with a partner, but after his partner’s suicide, Llewyn went solo and been struggling ever since. It makes him bitter to see colleagues either having more success, or having more success dealing with failure. Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) shows up on weekend leave from the army to sing at the Gaslight. He’s happy to sing there with no ambitions for bigger venues — then again, he has a day job. Justin Timberlake plays Jean’s new partner Jim, a comically extra-wholesome folk singer, and a foil for the cynical Llewyn. Couch-provider Al Cody (Adam Driver) takes it in stride when he lends his bass voice to a novelty song that, for Llewyn, feels like a compromise of musical integrity.

Cody points him to a ride to Chicago, and Llewyn takes it, hoping to find producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), who hasn’t been returning his calls. The car is carrying Roland Turner (John Goodman, farther out on a limb than usual), a flamboyant, ailing jazz musician who looks down on folk singers. “We play all twelve notes of the scale, dipshit. Not just 3 chords on a ukulele.”

The Gate of Horn

Llewyn arrives one morning at a club in Chicago called The Gate of Horn, where he will find Mr. Grossman, be allowed a one-on-one audition, and discover his fate. This is the place where the cream is skimmed from the milk.

... Not just for Folk singers like Llewyn, but for filmmakers like the Coen brothers, and for critics like me.

More astute critics than I knew that The Gate of Horn was not only a real Chicago club, but also a classical reference to The Odyssey. (The Coens’ O Brother Where Art Thou was “based on” The Odyssey, and Inside Llewyn Davis contains another, more explicit reference to Odysseus/Ulysses.) These critics knew that in mythology, there were two gates, one of horn and one of ivory; that what came through the gate of ivory was false, while only true things came through the gate of horn. Knowing all that, the scene with Bud Grossman becomes an incredibly important judgment on Llewyn’s fate. Even the drive from New York to Chicago takes on the status of a mythical journey.

The scene and the movie work perfectly well even if you don’t get the reference. But filmmakers who can hide something with such elegant resonance in their films, and critics who can find such things, are a cut above the wannabes in the world, including a humbled yours truly.

Acceptance

Puzzle-solving references don’t make great movies. Done badly, the just distract from the film’s larger themes. Here, they give a fatalistic force to the larger theme of artistic rejection. Speaking as a fellow traveler who has failed in the creative arts, I can say Inside Llewyn Davis is poignantly accurate in telling what it’s like.

You follow your passion. You pay your dues. Some of your compatriots make it; some are more talented, some work harder, but most are merely more popular. It doesn’t seem fair, but your fate is not in your hands. In your family, you’re still the creative one... as though that were any consolation. You still have the skills, and maybe you can still perform a song for your dad and be good.

But it’s not enough. The bitterness remains. And getting beaten up in an alley feels like exactly the right way to mark the passage from hopeful to has-been.