Inside the Ending to Inside Llewyn Davis

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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.

Inside Llewyn Davis Oscar Isaac

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.

– Jeremy

  • indip

    Sorry, but I think there is a loop:

    He stays more than one night with the Gorfeins (he tells them at the “end” that he wants to stay “a couple of nights”) and he goes to the Gaslight on two consecutive nights.

    After heckling a singer and getting thrown out he wakes up at the Gorfeins’ place and then leaves – on this occasion not letting the cat out.

    Then he plays the concert we see at the beginning and end of the movie – and gets beaten up.

    He wakes up at the Gorfeins’ again – and this second time lets the cat out.

    Then the rest of the movie occurs – only to end up back at the Gorfein flat, along with the cat – they have both returned to square one.

    There are several clues to the idea that he is vaguely aware of his Groundhog Day loop – he tells Jean “it feels like a long time although it’s just been a couple of days” and he says “au revoir” (til I see you again) to his assailant.

    The loop seems like a metaphor for grief and depression – although Turner’s Santeria curse provides an in-movie explanation – but there is some hope that Llewyn may be about to emerge from it: he finally plays the song he used to sing with Mike, Bob Dylan arrives to shake everything up, and he seems to be becoming aware of his plight…

    …the movie provides him with several escape routes – take the royalties not the session fee, join a trio, go to sea, take the Akron turning – all closed on this time round but perhaps open to him soon…

  • Diego

    After watching the documentary no direction home it’s more clear that the Jeff Bayer interpretation its more accurate, and that’s because it explains the Folk music revolution cause by Bob Dylan, and how the luck of Llewyn was going to make a change if we based Llewin and the career of Dave Van Ronk, but i don’t now i mean there are a couple of more interpretations in this movie, the only thing that it’s true it’s that i can’t get it out of my head…

  • Ryann

    I don’t think there’s any loop. I believe the last scene is just the first scene with more detail and the the preceding scenes are the events before the first scene

  • Kourtney Kettler

    I don’t know what the Coen brothers were trying to say, but what I got from it is that Llewyn is getting a second chance to do things different or better. I noticed that this cat is in a lot of scenes, so this second chance is like how a cat has nine lives. Maybe Llewyn has nine chances to do things better, I don’t know, but the similarity between the myth of a cat having nine lives and him re-doing that day all over again are pretty obvious.

  • Lakan de Leon

    “If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” –> It’s all in that one line.

  • Jennifer

    Hi, Jeremy.

    I agree with Lakan that “It was never new and it never gets old” is the key to the movie’s structure.

    Thanks to indip for carefully noting the circular structure and the fresh bits. I only saw the movie once, but that was my impression.

    When I was a child, my older sister was regrettably fond of “Found a Peanut”–a circle chronology “endless” song. I think the movie is a lot like the song … if we had the option of making different choices each time around. (And I would have appreciated that on those long family car trips!)

  • machineguntrey

    i just watched this again and this time the movie hit a chord; i have not bothered to read the reviews below, honestly, have not bothered to read the last 1/4 of the “review” because I have things to do, but I needed to say that while an obvious asshole, you should not have based your premise on his heckling of that old woman. He was not heckling her really, he was trying to stick it to Doogie Howsers bestsie who owns the club (who played a masterful part at BAM in a midnight summers dream on a side note) and said he banged (sorry) jeanie (sp?) which upset him because a powerful moment came at the end there when he told her “i love you” which is another point in this complicated yet deep and interesting and frikin confusing plot.

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  • Josh JD Davies

    What was the purpose of John Goodman? I didn’t get that whole segment at all! Also, the cat he steals that isn’t the right cat he hits whilst in that guys car and then there is a slow shot of llewelyn watching the cat hobble into the wilderness. WHAT the hell was that. I really liked the film, it made you continue to watch, however I’m very much of the ilk that something must have an ending! Be explained! You kind of keep hoping that something great will happen … Finally his luck would change and this would be emphasised in picture.

  • Tim Rodner

    Wonderful. Perfect compilation of interpretations and conceptions. I was genuinely afraid, after just having seen this movie last night for the first time, and woefully discovering *so many* reviews that COMPLETELY missed the “Groundhog Day” comparisons, that I was beginning to give up hope that anyone would see the connection/genuine plot of this film.

    Not only have you here in your review grasped what I think is the genuine concept of the film (i.e. “time loop”), but you also point to what I think is the most obvious in-the-film explanation, the curse from John Goodman’s character. In addition, you provide a wonderful panolpy of “Groundhog Day”-like opportunities for growth, and hence salvation. Well, well done, and thank you.

    (My own unique observation I’ll add here is, Goodman’s character dies (?) in either an act of of self-sacrifice to prevent himself from becoming trapped in the loop himself, or perhaps simply due to over-exertion from the stress of casting the curse. There’s more to be unpacked from that “public restroom” scene.)