In keeping with Ethan and Joel Coen’s dark whimsy, and their ambivalent fascination with losers and failures, Inside Llewyn Davis is a sort of reverse-image, anti-heroic Odyssey. Like Odysseus, who laboriously island-hops homeward after total war against Troy, the homeless and broke Davis moves uncomfortably from couch to couch as charitable acquaintances let him crash for a day or two at a time.
Actually, “crashing” seems a more apt description of his daily life than his nights.
Odysseus’s voyage finally begins because of his brilliant if belated success at Troy, but Davis’s journey arises from his tedious failures everywhere. I was not sure, watching this film, whether we were to think of Davis as an excellent folk musician who just never made it, or as an OK musician who should have been thinking about day jobs.
Odysseus is sung about, Davis sings.
Odysseus’s adventures at sea are mirrored by Davis’s episodic travels on the New York subway. A former merchant marine seaman, he is not allowed to sail again because of seamen’s union bureaucracy. His travels are by subway, car, and bus.
Odysseus’ complex journey was always towards home, but Davis has no home. The closest he has to a home is the dystopic old seamen’s snug harbor where his father has been warehoused.
Odysseus strove to return to his faithful wife, but Davis has no wife. There is a woman who might have borne him a child two years ago, but if so she bore that child to Akron. The only woman we see on film who has been intimate with him, or rather who has had sex with him, clearly loathes him. Her most endearing term for him is Asshole.
Far from being resourceful, Davis is incompetent. Unlike Odysseus, Davis is self-destructively unthinking, alienating nearly everyone whose help he needs, and bungling opportunities (giving up royalty rights, declining to sing harmony in a trio, alienating venue managers).
Inside Llewyn Davis doubtless makes many other astute and creative allusions to Odysseus, but let’s leave those for some graduate student’s PhD thesis. We need only add a note about the cat.
The audience finally discovers that the cat whose own adventurousness has cost Davis some trouble but revealed his caring side is named Ulysses. He seems at times the alter ego of Davis, at least to the extent that Davis gets to occasionally play the role of protector rather than protected. With Davis as your protector, you are in trouble. Sure enough, Davis finally abandons the cat in the hour of greatest need.
Inside Llewyn Davis might not be among the Coen brothers‘ best films, but it is as usual interesting and complex and way better than most of the movies showing in America.