The Cat — An Analysis of Inside Llewyn Davis
Like most other Coen brothers’ films, Inside Llewyn Davis offer its audience an art gallery’s worth of open-ended symbols and subversions. Is Davis stuck in a time loop, or have we only been fooled by a clever trick of book-ending? Are we simply following the life of a talented-though-unsuccessful protagonist, or does the movie go beyond the scope of music? But there’s one piece hanging on the wall that has garnered a substantial amount of commentary by audience and critics alike.
The damn cat.
Ulyssses’ presence and absence defines much of the movies patchwork, weaving through Davis’s life like a needle, sewing the film together scene-by-scene. Some think Ulysses represents a kind of spirit animal guide for Davis. Others have offered that he is the arbiter of the Coen brothers themselves, guiding the narrative from within the frame. Ulysses ties a very particular thread through the movie: Ulysses represents the opportunity for change in Davis’s life.
The film begins with Davis in the club. This is his natural element, his life as he has lived it up to this point. We could almost refer to this as Davis P.C. era (Pre-Cat). Ulysses interrupts everything that is normal in Davis’s life, and while to Davis it appears to be a hindrance, it is actually opening opportunities for Davis to question his lifestyle and to change.
One of the first actions the cat takes while under Davis’s care is to run away while at Jean’s (Carey Mulligan’s) apartment. The cat is not present while they discuss Jean’s abortion, and the conversation ends with Davis asking if he could leave the window open for the cat to return. This can be interpreted as Davis is asking Jean to leave herself open to the opportunity for change, to leave the window of change open.
The cat serendipitously returns as Davis sits with Jean in the coffee shop as Davis starts making plans to change his life, to get signed by Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). The thought of Grossman also brings up the question of why Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) was signed over Davis, especially with Davis depicted as being much hipper than Nelson. The answer is apparent from a music history standpoint: Davis’s brand of folk is very modern while Troy’s is a better representation of what was going on at the time of the 1960s folk explosion. Troy also serves as the goal to which Davis aspires, which Davis follows for his success (joining the army, getting signed). We see Nelson and Ulysses interacting in Jean’s apartment, and they are immediately comfortable with one another. Nelson is comfortable with change, he is used to its presence in his life and even welcomes it. Davis finds Ulysses to be a chore, and similarly sees change as a problem to be fixed or avoided altogether.
We then have the scene of Davis trying to return the cat to its owners, the Gorfiends. This is the first time in the film where his partner’s suicide plays a part in the narrative, though the audience is not aware that this context is driving the scene. It is the first time we see Davis’s reaction to his partner’s death, a trauma he cannot yet face. After the confrontation with Mrs. Gorfiend, we discover that this is not the original Ulysses at all, as this cat is female. Davis is trying to put things back to normal in his life–return to status quo–but this particular change is something that he cannot ignore or brush away: his partner being dead is as unalterable as the cat’s lack of testicles. He continues to carry this Ulysses around with him–odd, considering he knows this is not the Gorfiends’ cat and could just as easily dump it back on the street–as though the presence of the cat, and change in his life, has become permanent.
Davis takes to the road with jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). In screenwriting terms, this serves as a side-plot, taking Davis well-outside his comfort zone, the cat beside him all the way. When the time comes for Davis to decide whether or not to abandon the cat, he closes the door. In literal terms, he rids himself of responsibility. Davis wants to get back to his original journey of meeting with Grossman. For the superstitious, perhaps leaving the cat behind was a double-edged sword: while he has rid himself of the burden, he has left behind change’s totem, and without it, he ultimately returns to New York unchanged.
While most of the occurrences around Ulysses are presented as natural occurrences that could happen to anyone (a cat running away is hardly out of the ordinary, nor is mistaking one tabby for another), Ulysses appearing on the road as Davis is driving home is in stark contrast to the previously established naturalism of the film. The slim possibility of the occurrence comes off as otherworldly, nearly forced, and should be read as a flag to the audience. This is the climax of the film, because from here, everything in Davis’s life becomes the falling action as chances whither and die.
Davis has the opportunity to visit the town where his daughter was born which would be an unalterable change. It would introduce responsibilities that would destroy his current lifestyle: he would need to get a job, move away from New York City, and ultimately become a different person. He speeds past the sign. Then he hits the cat.
Davis gets out of the care and spots the blood on the fender. He does not run to help the cat but simply watches as the animal limps into the woods, likely to die moving in the direction of the town. This is Davis’s last chance for true change. Instead he decides to destroy it, that final chance is killed and lays itself to rest where that change was possible–creating a family, living for someone other than himself.
From here, Davis’s life returns to normal. He is denied permittance to the navy. Jean refuses to let their relationship go anywhere. The Gorfiends find their cat and the relationship is healed. But this ties in with the temporal loop theory that Llewyn exists in, that things have become rote, and that he will exist in the same situation forever, over and over. In a way, Davis has consigned himself to the Hell of his own existence with his refusal to change. In the second playing of the scene where Davis wakes up in the Gorfiends’ apartment, he keeps the cat from escaping, and the door is locked with the cat on the other side.
The final kick in the stomach is when Davis plays a song called “Fare Thee Well,” possibly saying goodbye to change in his life. We also watch as Bob Dylan takes the stage to sing the song similarly titled, “Farewell,” hinting that Davis may have a dark or a fallen form of Dylan–a version that never rose to fame and fortune.
Finally, the name. Ulssyses has several connotations, and given the moment’s presentation, (“That’s his name?!”Davis asks, before a sudden cut to the next scene), the name carries intention from the Coen’s.
It could represent the cat/Davis’s journey, as Ulysses is the Roman translation of the hero Odysseus, whose story takes him on a wide-flung journey. Ulysses could be referring to the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, where Ulysses comes home to Ithaca, yearning for his old like of exploration though his responsibilities to his wife and child keep him at home. This opens up interesting possibilities of the cat being a representation of Davis that he ultimately kills, as the cat goes to the woods while Davis keeps on with his musician lifestyle. But there is one interpretation that I enjoy most: In commenting on his novel Ulysses, James Joyce said that he had “put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries” discussing what he meant and that it was “the only way of ensuring one’s immortality.” It’s a lesson the Coen brothers have learned very well, whether it be through a flood in a bluegrass re-imagining of the Homer’s Odyssey, or Satan appearing to a struggling screenwriter. And now, a tabby.