Oscar Isaac (Carey Mulligan’s loser husband in Drive) is a folk singer who gets by on his earnest music and pity over the suicide of his ex-partner, not on his abilities to make or keep friends or smoothly adapt to change. He sleeps at fellow folkies Jean & Jim’s place (cutie couple Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) or arts patrons The Gorfeins. Llewyn may have gotten Jean pregnant, and he accidentally receives (then loses) the Gorfeins’ cat. He’s running out of career options and hastily plans a last-ditch trip to Chicago in the company of sullen actor Garrett Hedlund and grotesque blues man John Goodman, to (unsuccessfully) audition at a major club.
R. Brody: “The symbolic aspect of this sidebar is clear. The jazzman is a hardened cynic with a wound, a habit—and a career; the young actor is a self-deluding purist trapped in humiliating servitude; and for Davis, both options appear unbearable.”
Interesting how the end of Llewyn Davis is similar/opposite to the end of The Grandmaster. In Grandmaster, Ip Man has suffered and ended up alone, but we see a young guy who is obviously Bruce Lee, and the movie is telling us that Ip’s legacy and teachings will live on gloriously. In the Coen movie, Llewyn has suffered and ended up alone getting his ass kicked in an alley, but we see a young guy who is obviously Bob Dylan, and the movie is telling us Llewyn has run out of time, than his whole genre is about to be transformed and move on without him.
The film fades to black, and the Dylan song, victorious, plays over the end credits. Somewhere along the way, you figure Dylan has been on his own, significantly luckier trajectory – maybe like the Incredible Journey that Ulysses the cat must have been on. But we didn’t see that journey. We saw the other journey — the one with some loser named Llewyn and a nameless, wounded cat. In many ways, that’s the journey the rest of us are also on.
It ought to be rather clear by now that the Coens’ body of work constitutes the closest we have to a consistent existential American cinema. This helps explain that sense of detachment in their films, often misread as condescension. Theirs is admittedly not an open-arms type of filmmaking, but no one could accuse Inside Llewyn Davis, at once their warmest and most fragile film, of treating its complicated, imperfect protagonist with disdain. From its opening shot, the camera caresses Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), who enters from frame right to meet a microphone in wait.