Flashbacks, Doppelgangers, and Gaslighting: Reading INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
26 January 2014
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) begins with the title character performing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in The Gaslight Cafe, a Greenwich Village club. The year is 1961 and Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) in a folk singer trying to make the transition from member of a moderately successful folk duo to solo artist (the transition comes by necessity, not desire, as Llewyn’s musical partner, Mike, recently committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge). Immediately after his set, The Gaslight’s owner tells Llewyn “a friend” is waiting for his out back. Curious, Llewyn heads out to the back alley where a man in a suit waits in the shadows. The identity of the man is a mystery; Llewyn himself does not recognize him, but the man knows Llewyn and he beats him severely, leaving Llewyn prostrate, bleeding in the cold, wet alley. As the man walks away from Llewyn, muttering some threat about watching one’s mouth, the film cuts to an interior tracking shot of an orange tabby cat walking down an apartment’s hallway, into a room, and onto a sofa bed, where this cat wakes a sleeping Llewyn. Instinctively, the audience may think it is the next morning and Llewyn has crashed with friends after being beaten; however, the truth is once the film cuts from the back alley to the apartment, a flashback occurs.
The film will primarily capture the week leading up to Llewyn’s gig at The Gaslight, not because he is physically beaten this night, but because this night at The Gaslight is the perilous night Llewyn Davis will be completely defeated, in every way.
When the audience first sees Llewyn beaten in the back alley it looks like a mere physical attack. Yes, a serious one, but one his body will be able to recover from. However, the second time the audience watches this attack, in the film’s conclusion, the beating is understood to be more than physical, and there is little likelihood Llewyn will recover. Therefore, the flashback structure of the film, the circular construction in which the audience starts at one moment, travels back in time, and then works toward the moment they started from, is essential to fully understanding, or being inside Llewyn Davis. Only from the information contained in the flashback, specifically the Coen brothers’ unique use of doppelgängers, can the film’s conclusion be understood.
Inside Inside Llewyn Davis, meaning within the flashback, Llewyn has a doppelgänger (or two, or maybe even three). Llewyn’s doppelganger (or double) in the film is the orange tabby cat; to be specific, any of the orange tabby cats shown are Llewyn’s doppelganger. It does not matter how many orange cats there are in the film because only one cat appears at a time. Thus, whichever orange cat appears is Llewyn’s doppelganger. In the film’s case, of course, these characters are doppelgängers of behavior and situation, not doppelgängers of appearance.
Like Llewyn the orange tabby cats in the film are always on the run, sometimes escaping domesticity, other times wandering the streets of New York’s Greenwich Village, and sometimes just recklessly running right into trouble. Not only are the cats and Llewyn alike because they are always on the run, but the cats and Llewyn are alike because they are almost always displaced: without a home and, typically, situated where they do not belong and are not welcome.
Take, for example, the second orange cat, the one Llewyn thinks belongs to his friends Mitch and Lillian Gorfein. Not only does this cat end up with Llewyn on the subway (like the first cat), but this cat also ends up traveling by car with Llewyn to Chicago. Odd places for cats to be. Yet, when Llewyn is forced to leave his ride, roughly three hours outside of Chicago, and hitchhike the rest of the way, Llewyn abandons the orange cat in the car. This sets up the next event which has a significant impact on the film’s conclusion.
Llewyn’s trip to Chicago proves futile he hitchhikes back to New York with his aspirations of professional folk singing crushed. (Interestingly, Llewyn gets in a car headed back to New York in the exact same spot he got out of the car that drove him to Chicago. Retrospectively, when the audience realizes they have been watching a flashback, these smaller, subtle circles, or moments when the film comes around to a previously mentioned or shown point, are appreciated.) While returning to New York, Llewyn drives for the stranger who picked him up. It is dark, snowy night, and Llewyn, almost asleep, hits an orange tabby cat on the highway. Llewyn pulls over, notices blood on the front of his car, and sees the badly wounded animal limping off the road and into the woods. It is unlikely that is the same cat Llewyn left abandoned on the highway, but that does not matter; the link between Llewyn and orange tabby cats in the film has already been clearly established, so that dying cat, whether it is the same cat or another switch, is Llewyn’s doppelganger.
After returning to New York, Llewyn learns he has a gig at The Gaslight. He shows up to the venue the night before and, having received some troubling news about his friend, Jane (Carey Mulligan), Llewyn picks a fight with the club owner and heckles the woman performing onstage. Disheartened, Llewyn reenlists in the merchant marines, what he sees as his only alternative in life without folk music. He spends nearly all his money on dues so he can ship out, but then learns his sister threw out his credentials and necessary licensing for the merchant marines. With his naval back-up plan dashed, all Llewyn can do is return to The Gaslight Cafe for his last set.
Here is where the twist happens. After his set, the owner tells Llewyn “a friend” is waiting for him out back. This is the moment viewers realize a trick has been pulled in the film’s narrative structure. And then it clicks, The Gaslight Cafe. The Coen brothers just gaslit the audience, meaning they manipulated the film’s perceived linear narrative structure by using flashback, but did not make it clear to the audience a flashback occurred. So, when viewers arrive back at where they began, and start to question the film’s reality and their perception of the events, wise audience members will see the quintessential wit of the Coens in naming the club The Gaslight Cafe, since gaslighting someone is a psychological manipulation to make someone(s) question reality, even question their sense of sanity. This is a clever (and hilarious) move on behalf of the filmmakers, and proof that most of the film has been a flashback.
Yet, wit aside, the audience now arrives back at the beginning with a better sense of Llewyn Davis and his financial, mental, and emotional state when this beating occurs. Moreover, the Coen brothers slip in a brief sequence between Llewyn being told about the “friend” in the alley and Llewyn’s arrival in that alley, a series of shots not shown when the audience watched this scene play out in the film’s opening. As Llewyn makes his way to the alley, he sees another performer take the stage. The camera cuts to the shadow of this other performer as he begins to sing; the performer is Bob Dylan and the song he sings is “Farewell.” Dylan’s “Farewell” is sometimes called “Fare Thee Well,” which is the same title as the song Llewyn repeatedly covers throughout the film. In this brief moment, this sequence the filmmakers withheld from the audience in the beginning, Llewyn and viewers simultaneously realize that Llewyn is not going to make it.
Then, the film’s opening continues to play out, with the man in the suit (the husband of the women Llewyn heckled the night before) beating Llewyn. This time, however, when viewers watch the scene they can think of Llewyn’s doppelgänger. Like his doppelgänger, Llewyn is unexpectedly beaten and broken. Also like his doppelgänger, Llewyn drags himself toward a street light. He sees his attacker speed off in a taxi, the same type of exit Llewyn made after he fatally wounded cat on the highway and drove off. Ultimately, Llewyn and his doppelganger both pay the same consequence for running right toward danger and being where they do not belong.
Llewyn’s final words, and the final words in the film, are “Au revoir” (French for “goodbye”). This is significant because, with Bob Dylan singing “Farewell” inside The Gaslight Cafe, (and it is now very important to mention that Llewyn is no longer inside, he is very much outside, to reference the film’s title) Llewyn Davis can no longer say farewell. With Dylan’s arrival, Llewyn has nothing, no songs to sing or words to speak.
Retrospectively, and indulging in taking the reaction to Inside Llewyn Davis even further, the film has been a series of small circular references within a larger circular structure, the flashback, but, perhaps, even the flashback is within a larger circle, one that started before the film began. The suicide of Mike was the actual beginning of Llewyn’s end. Therefore, although the audience never sees the tabby cat dead, but it is understood the cat will die; the audience never sees Llewyn dead, but there is a strong suggestion that he will. There is no way of living for him, and so, like Mike and his doppelgänger, that only leaves a way of dying.