Inside the Ending to Inside Llewyn Davis
This article contains spoilers for Inside Llewyn Davis.
Last Saturday I drove eighty miles to see Inside Llewyn Davis, and I couldn’t be more glad that I did. It’s a masterful film with beautiful cinematography, wonderful performances, and a song about JFK shooting people into space. But I wasn’t thinking about any of those things as I left the theater. Instead, I was trying to comprehend the ending.
The Coens aren’t strangers to unorthodox endings. The Man Who Wasn’t There, Burn After Reading, Barton Fink, and most famously No Country for Old Men, left audiences debating what each was all about. Likewise, Inside Llewyn Davis ends not with a twist ending, but with a very surprising and possibly confusing one that gives way to endless interpretations. Does Ulysses the cat have time-traveling abilities, and has cursed Llewyn to repeat the same week over again? Are the first 90 minutes all a dream, with the ending being Llewyn waking up? Does the movie take place in a snow globe flying around in the tornado from A Serious Man? I wanted to hear some different interpretations of the ending, so I asked some fellow writers for their thoughts on what it all really means.
Wesley Emblidge (@WesleyEmblidge):
Llewyn is trapped at this one point in his career, so I think he’s reliving this same week over and over, unable to get any further past it. He is slowly learning and advancing, which we see because he doesn’t let the cat out at the end. I don’t think he’s necessarily aware of the loop. It could be less of a science fiction concept and more a way of expressing how he’s going through life. And I feel like he’s been stuck there for a while and will be for a while more. It’s very, very depressing, although there’s a sliver of hope.
Matthew Legarreta (@Geek_Binge):
The ending of Inside Llewyn Davis is less about the cyclical nature of Llewyn Davis’ existence, and more about the way he behaves throughout the film. Davis is called an asshole by many characters, and his often terrible behavior is certainly proof of that notion. One of the biggest offenses happens towards the end (beginning?) of the film, in which Davis drunkenly unleashes on a poor older woman just trying to sing a song to an audience of eager listeners. Through this scene, it became clear to me just why Bud Grossman quickly dismissed Davis while simultaneously latching on to an artist like Troy Nelson. Though Davis is arguably a better performer than Nelson, Nelson had a bright and soulful attitude that got people to listen to what he was singing. To put it in the most simple (and slightly cliche) terms, Nelson (and to a slightly less extent, Jim) had a more soulful personality than Davis, who had his soul stripped away by his struggles and lose of his former performing partner. That’s why it was so easy for Davis to mock the gentle singing woman—throughout his god awful week, his love of music had been slightly soured. One of the final lines of the entire film comes courtesy of the mysterious man, who explains to Davis mid beat down that his wife was simply trying to sing a song. She wasn’t trying to sign on to a label or make a record—she just loved music, and wanted to perform for people to hear. Can the same be said of Davis? I would argue no, but his final performance before the beat down, when he’s literally at his lowest and with nothing to gain, shows there’s still a part of him that isn’t, well, an asshole. The soul is still there, and by latching onto it, he might become the kind of folk musician that people would listen to (or, as Grossman put it, one you can make money from). And that’s what makes the final moments of the film so genius in my mind—how we view the attack from the man at the beginning of the film is wildly different than how we viewed it at the end just because, well, we knew Llewyn Davis. He’s not a particularly good man, but there’s certainly redemption yet for the character, and hopefully his little smile and “Au revoir” to his attacker show’s the fact he’s willing to change.
Jared Russo (@JaredRusso):
The cyclical nature of the ending makes it seem as though we are simply re-watching the beginning all over again, which would mean the opening scene was simply a flashback. But there was one single shot that makes all of this way more complicated than it needed to be (although, granted, this does make the film way more of a Coen picture and it’s probably better off for it). It’s the shot of the cat being kicked into the apartment, instead of it getting out again (which starts the whole movie). I need to see the film again, but I just think it goes to show that Llewyn’s life is very repetitive and this is bound to happen over and over again. Except now he is aware to not let a cat out. I think it’s easier to just examine both scenes, which are almost identical, as a flashback, but that extra shot is so key to the entire movie. Goddamn cats.
Jeff Bayer (@BayerJeff)
The beginning of the film is just part of the ending. We don’t know this until the end, of course. Both have the same dialogue, same songs, same everything, but the ending shows us a little more (the man talks about his wife, and Llewyn goes to the edge of the street to watch him completely leave). The chronological beginning of the movie starts with him letting the cat out. He has ups and downs, he’s a suffering artist, he sticks to his gut feeling about what music should mean to him, and if he can’t have it his way, he won’t have it at all. He pours his heart out at that final show. Just before that, he doesn’t let the cat out. The girl he got pregnant thinks he should play at that show. Things are turning in his favor. We know there is a magazine covering Dylan that night, so there is a chance Llewyn could get discovered or mentioned in that article. Llewyn has to answer to being a dick to that woman, and takes his beating, sarcastically at first, but then he wants to watch the man leave. I think he’s saying goodbye (or trying to say goodbye) to being an extreme ass. I think he goes on to have a decent career (fully able to own a winter coat, and travel, and play music for the rest of his days). The first time I saw it, it felt very somber. The second time I felt the joy (and the humor worked even better), and that’s when I decided Llewyn will be a semi-success.
I love all of these answers, and I especially love that they’re so different. The Coens made a complete film with a satisfying ending, but there’s also so much that’s up to interpretation. And no one is reaching for significance since the Coens pack so much into this film (as they always do). Originally I gravitated towards Wesley’s interpretation, but after reading Jeff’s I am now on his side. And not just because I want a happy ending for Llewyn, but because the reasoning is sound and simple. There are no time-loops or alternate realities or curses; there’s just some chronology swapping. But of course there is no definite right answer, so all we have are guesses. I look forward to seeing what future re-watches of the movie make clear, because I could very well come out of the movie a second time and think something different.
So what say you? Do you agree with any of the interpretations above, or have one of your own? Share your take in the comments.