What a cold and bleak film Inside Llewyn Davis is, as bitter as the winter in which Llewyn Davis finds himself so ill-equipped to function in. There’s some laughs — it’s a Coen brothers film after all — but under the surface is a metaphor for depression that offers no solution, no saccharine Hollywood uplifts or hopeful closing notes. Inside Llewyn Davis is brutal.
The film opens with him waking alone in an upper-middle-class apartment, leaving a note of apology for being such a mess the previous night. Later, after Llewyn gives a well-received performance at a folk music venue, he’s called outside where a ‘friend’ is waiting for him, a shadowed figure in a suit who gives him a retributive beating, apparently for heckling at a previous show. Left reeling and bleeding in a deserted alleyway, this isn’t Llewyn at rock bottom; it is, though, Llewyn being put on the path to it.
On the surface, Llewyn seems like just another couch-surfing loser with self-destructive tendencies. He’s an above-average artist but doesn’t have anything that makes him stand out from his peers, and he seems to have no love for his craft, decrying his ability as ‘a job’ and insisting that he hates folk music. References abound to his former partner, a man loved and full of life who nonetheless committed suicide; Llewyn can’t go anywhere without being reminded of him in some way, be it directly by those who knew him, or indirectly, by record producers who only understand Llewyn’s vibe when they hear that he used to have a partner. He’s tried to move on by performing alone and recording a solo album, but he’s never allowed to forget.
Llewyn is a man perpetually failing to break out of the doldrums. How much of this is his own fault, I’m not sure; it’s not that he isn’t trying, but his tendency to think only in the short term hinders and traps him just as much as the expectations of his friends and family do. Even when, exhausted and out of options, he tries to give up music entirely and re-join the merchant navy, he’s ultimately prevented by his own thoughtlessness earlier in the film. Endlessly pushing himself on through a life he hates, when he finally concludes that he’s out for good, he’s turned on to another opening at the same venue he opened the film in; he’s dragged back into his place by his friends and family even as he insists he doesn’t want it.
By the end of the film, Llewyn has gone full circle. After days of missing or discarding opportunities to break out of his rut, days of exhausting, freezing travel and taut, emotional encounters, the film ends as it begins, but it isn’t just metaphorically cyclical; it’s literally the same. His well-to-do friends take him in, he apologies for being such a mess, he gets a good night’s sleep, gives a decent performance at the folk venue and once more takes a beating from the same shadowy figure, for the same reasons, with the same dialogue.
This ending is perhaps the most important and telling scene of the film; the days we’ve spent watching Llewyn slowly being ground down weren’t just a run of bad luck, but an actual purgatory. How can Llewyn Davis escape from his? Was it Llewyn’s partner that committed suicide, or was it Llewyn himself?