This review was originally published in January 2014. My opinions on the film have since crystallized and I am more a fan than before. It has gone on to become my favourite film of 2013. Images are from the film and are not my own.
The Coen Brother's films, consistently worth our time, seem interested in exploring grace (emphasized in Oh Brother Where Art Thou), sin (No Country For Old Men), and how these two interact (Fargo).
Their latest offering again explores the balance of these two realities. Inside Llywen Davis follows a week in the life of its title character, who deserves our sympathy. Ever since his musical partner (voiced by Marcus Mumford) commited sucide, his career as a solo act has been a constant struggle. Although Llewyn is accurately discribed by a former friend as "an asshole", the root of his chilly demeanour and cruel outbursts is his grief over the lose of his friend ("fare thee well" being his anthem), as well as his struggle over the uncertainty of his future.
But these outbursts are blinding him to the grace present in his life. The first half of the film emphasizes this grace with its humour and is perhaps represented by the orange cat that alternately pursues and is pursued by Llewyn. It's only later in the film that the tone gets more serious as Llweyn's depression sets in. He is riddled by strangers and cut off from any remaining friends who care. His angst over his future felt very familiar to me and is accurately portrayed as his frustration and boredom for those he is surrounded by is with mixed with his uncertainty. "What are you doing?" is seen scratched on the wall of a roadside bathroom stall. This question haunts him and is one that I have also asked myself many times.
As failure continues to doge his back, we too start yearning for some sort of success for Llewyn or at least some sort of resolution or answer. Perhaps he will give in to careerist callings, following his old man at sea, "growing up, growing old, and dying" but even that door is bared. And he embarrasses himself by a cruel outburst to some of his kindest friends and then again a fellow performer. In his heartache, he has slammed the door on any grace offered to him (along with any cats representing it).
But all is not lost for Llewyn. Forgiveness is offered by those whom he shortsighted, complete with the reappearance of fuzzy toms. Although he longs to be called home and "fly away to the one he loves," retribution for his cruelty will come knocking (or in this case punching). The film leaves him with hope for his struggling art, if he will learn to listen to the artists he shares his stage with (and especially one with curly hair and a harmonica). Hopefully he is realizing that the people around him, although often equal to him in asshole status, also provide the forgiveness, friendship, and grace that they both desperately need. Hopefully the "au reviour" he gives at the end is to that former lifestyle of shortsightedness and selfishness
As I walked home from the theatre, the freezing wind blowing at my scarf bound face like it did Llywen's, I reflected back on my day. "Aching pain" had filled my, both with the people around me and my career. But as I reflected on my frustrations, I was brought back to the graces that were given to me that day by the same people. Like Llewyn's cat, it encouraged me to keep singing and keep on hoping as I too travelled the "green, green rocky road."