Some people never learn. No matter how many chances you give them they always manage to do the one thing that guarantees the golden egg turns into a brown turd. The protagonist (or perhaps the antagonist. Llewyn is irritating enough to be both) of this strange and absorbing film set in the folk scene of the sixties is exactly this man. His life is a trial of disaster. He impregnates his mates girl, he accidentally steals another friends cat, he gets another girl pregnant and is so disliked by her that she does not even bother to tell him she kept the baby and is now living in Akron, Ohio.
As he moves around the city of New York and the country at large, we see a man on a journey, which only makes him seem more lost. There is no redemption for him. If this is an Odyssey than this Ulysses never really ever gets home
Perhaps this is the reason that in spite of the fact he is a Grade A ‘asshole’, as one female friend constantly points out to him, we do feel for Llewyn.
As the story unfolds, or perhaps unravels is a better way of putting it, we discover Llewyn’s ex-singing partner committed suicide which starts to explain both his drift and his bitterness.
We can see too that here is someone with a talent but like most of us it’s a talent with limits. He hasn’t got that special something to help him breakthrough as a folk singer. More importantly he has the personality to make people forgive his shortcomings
He is that someone who is not going to get that life affirming moment and will probably end up on the edges of the music scene whilst earning his crust out at sea in the merchant navy where had once worked, a job that perfectly suits a man unable to commit to anyone. Not even a cat.
There is wonderful scene where Llewyn driving at night through the Mid West hits a cat, which he is sure, is the same one he left behind him on his road trip to Chicago. He sees it limp into the darkness of a wood by the side of the road. Yet rather than do what most of us would do, run into the woods and in trying to save it, Llewyn hesitates before getting back into the car and driving away. The look on his face belongs to a man who has given up on the hope of doing any good for anyone or anything.
Here is a man doomed to repeat the same mistakes endlessly, someone who exists as a salutary lesson to everyone else on how not to behave. Indeed the film’s circulatory structure highlights this. We start with pretty much the same scenes that we begin with and can see that Llewyn’s life of couch hopping will never stop.
Of all the films I’ve seen up for Oscar contention this is the only one I would consider buying and re-watching more than once. It may not have the amazing visceral power of ‘12 Years a Slave’ but it has a human truth too it that, like the best work of the Cohen’s, makes us think about our lives and our own failings.