In 2005, the late Blake Snyder published Save the Cat, a screenwriting guide that Hollywood has since embraced a little too wholeheartedly. If the major blockbusters of the past decade have all appeared to be cribbed from the same template, it’s because they were: Snyder’s book breaks down screenplay structure into a series of “beats”, which it claims are the key to a successful script. It even specifies on which page these beats should occur. The titular piece of advice is that in order to make a protagonist likeable, they should be made do a good deed of some sort early in the first act, i.e. saving a cat.
In the Coen’s 2013 release Inside Llewyn Davis the protagonist, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), is a folk singer couchsurfing his way through 1960’s Greenwich Village. He literally saves a runaway cat within the first ten minutes. If anyone else had made this movie, I would have read this moment as either a hilariously literal implementation of Snyder’s formula or an unfortunate coincidence. But since we’re talking about the Coens, I have to wonder if it’s a deliberate jab at the Hollywood trope.
This “Save the Cat” moment actually functions the way that Snyder intended, at least initially. Llewyn is not an immediately likeable character — he’s surly, condescending and most often passive. Despite his bad luck, we get the sense that this guy could make a success out of his life if he would just change his attitude.
But the cat sticks around for more than just a first-act beat — Llewyn ends up carrying the animal throughout most of the film. He loses him, finds him again, and eventually leaves him in a car on the side of the highway, reversing his good deed from the beginning of the film. This subversion of Snyder’s formula mirrors the character’s inability to change or grow significantly, an anti-arc that would typically be frowned upon by Save The Cat apologists.
With the cat, the Coens again dare us to discern some deep significance in what seems like a really obvious symbol. There are even “clues” in the dialog: Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend Jean (Carrie Mulligan) screams “EXPLAIN THE CAT”, when she finds it deposited in her own apartment. When Llewyn calls the cat’s owner, the secretary on the other end mishears him say “Llewyn is the cat”. I don’t think it matters what the cat symbolizes. It’s Llewyn, it’s the pain he’s carrying, it’s his dwindling musical ambition, pick your poison. But as we find out late in the film, it’s not even the same cat that he started with — the symbol itself is a fraud.
What’s not as obvious is that Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about dealing with death. Although it’s only directly addressed later in the story, Llewyn has just lost his friend and musical partner Mike to suicide. The revelation of Mike’s death reframes the central struggle of the story: It’s not that Llewyn doesn’t have the strength to make it as a folk singer, it’s that he’s not sure how to move forward in his life at all without his best friend.
This pain bubbles to the surface when Llewyn blows up at the same couple that hosted him previously, screaming at the wife for attempting to sing Mike’s part of a song that she requested Llewyn sing at a dinner party. At this moment, we understand that Llewyn’s bad behavior and ennui has been largely the result of his grief, invisible but omnipresent.
Even though Inside Llewyn Davis is a period piece, it feels like a sharp reflection of the moment of its creation, more than any prior Coen film. We can strongly feel that Llewyn is a part of a movement of young people at odds with the values of the rest of society and its encompassing economic system. Llewyn struggles to make money, but money is not the goal — the goal is to make meaningful music. He clashes with his older sister, who has embraced a more conventionally stable life path. He’s literally unable to communicate with his father, whose senility reads as a stand-in for intergenerational lack of understanding, impenetrable even by the universal language of music.
I have to caveat this with the fact that generational labels are made up and not-very-useful ways to describe huge swaths of the population, but it’s hard to watch this and not feel the similarities to my own “generation”, one that has been broadly marked by a desire to pursue lives of meaning over lives of economic gain. This pursuit of meaning often comes with an embrace of the past — Llewyn and his Greenwich Villiage colleagues are reviving a form of music that was last popular before they were born, playing songs that are over a hundred years old. Connecting to the past in this way has its dangers — at worst, a person’s life can turn into a pastiche of a life past, centered around traditions and art forms that the person can’t really take meaningful ownership of. This is why we make fun of “Millenials” with old-timey sailor tattoos and other anachronistic affectations — their quest for authenticity has made them glaringly inauthentic.
Llewyn’s inability to break with the values of authenticity that he lives by ensures that he won’t be commercially successful. Refusing to give in, Llewyn thinks he’s a martyr for his art. Maybe he is. What he’s preserving is inarguably good and beautiful, but he’s preventing himself from discovering new meaning of his own. Would Bob Dylan be as revered today if he had never pulled out an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival? What seemed like a betrayal then is seen now as an act of artistic courage.
To close out, let’s go through some of these amazing music scenes that are available as clips. Justin Timberlake was an inspired casting choice as Jim, the clueless husband to Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend Jean. In addition to the sheer joy of watching Timberlake perform folk music, the character adds much needed lightness to what would otherwise be an almost unbearably dour film. Even in terms of color language, Jim’s sweaters are the only bright spots in the relentlessly desaturated color palette. I have watched this clip probably forty times:
Next, In a prophetic coincidence, Adam Driver makes a cameo as baritone country singer Al Cody, who along with Llewyn assists in Jim’s ridiculous space-themed pop-folk number. Everything about this is great:
And lastly, Llewyn’s performance of The Death of Queen Jane for a Chicago music manager. This scene illustrates how crucial Oscar Isaac’s casting was. In order for this scene to work the musical performance has to obviously great, so that the rejection at the end lands as a purely money-driven decision. Isaac pulls of both the music and the acting with incredible subtlety.