Llewyn Davis: Inside the Coens’ exploration of life, death, and the grieving process


NOTE: This essay includes spoilers for the Coens’ new film Inside Llewyn Davis; if you haven’t yet seen the film, read at your own discretion.

Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from writer-director siblings Joel and Ethan Coen, is bookended by two scenes, each showing its main character Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) strumming his guitar and singing on the spotlit stage of New York City’s Gaslight Cafe. In fact, the scenes are one and the same as far as timeline is concerned; the last scene is a reshowing of the first. However, some events are intentionally missing from the opening scene, which allows the Coens to teach us an extraordinary lesson in the film’s final minutes.

In the opening scene, we see Llewyn play the traditional folk ballad “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, a song that perfectly sets up the rest of the film, itself a tale of death, of grief, and ultimately, of life. It’s very melancholy, depressing, and even haunting, but also extremely beautiful.

After Llewyn finishes the song, he joins Pappi, the club’s owner, by the bar, who acknowledges that Llewyn and someone named Mikey used to play the song together. In the next scene, we discover through an album cover that the Mikey to whom Pappi was referring is Mike Timlin, who joined Llewyn as the other half of the folk duo Timlin & Davis. Awake after crashing the night before on the couch of his friends Mitch and Lillian Gorfein, Llewyn plays a track from the record, a duet, “Fare Thee Well.”

In a later scene between Llewyn and Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan), whom Llewyn may or may not have knocked up, Jean mentions that she misses Mike. So where is Mike? What happened to him? Why did Pappi say that he and Llewyn used to play the song from the film’s opening scene, why don’t they play it any longer? Did they grow apart, split for creative differences, opt for their own solo careers?

We are soon brought to yet another scene with a mention of Mike. After returning the Gorfein’s cat, which slipped out a few mornings earlier and has been at Llewyn’s side the past few days, Llewyn has dinner with the couple and several of their friends. Llewyn is asked — or perhaps more properly put, begged — to play them a song, and he obliges. He opts for a variation of the song we heard a few scenes earlier, “Fare Thee Well”, but when Lillian jumps in to harmonize with what used to be Mike’s part, Llewyn becomes irritated, throws a fit, and eventually storms out of the apartment.

Whatever happened, it’s clear that Mike’s absence greatly affects Llewyn. And when Llewyn decides to hitch a ride to Chicago with jazz artist Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his valet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), we learn from conversation between Llewyn and Roland that Llewyn’s former partner Mike committed suicide by throwing himself off the George Washington Bridge. This abruptly ended the duo’s partnership, and explains why Pappi said that Mike and Llewyn used to play together.

It’s here where we discover that much, likely not all but certainly a big part, of Llewyn’s melancholy is due to the loss of his friend and partner; Llewyn struggles to cope with Mike’s death, as it seems Mike, though physically absent, is still present in every thing Llewyn does, especially when it comes to music. It explains the performance of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in the opening scene, clearly intended to show the grief of a man struggling to cope with a friend’s death. And it explains why Llewyn was so irritated at the Gorfeins’ a couple nights before, why he couldn’t continue playing and rushed out of the apartment. This serves to show that, as we’ve all been told before, we can never replace those we’ve lost.

Another scene later in the film finds Llewyn in Chicago, at the renowned folk music club Gate Of Horn, owned by Bud Grossman (F. Murry Abraham). Llewyn had previously sent his record to Grossman, but never heard back; he now finds himself seated across from Grossman, guitar in hand, ready to play something for him from his solo record, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Llewyn’s song of choice is “Death of Queen Jane,” a ballad sung beautifully by Davis but one that leaves Grossman skeptical of Davis’s popularity and earnings potential.

Grossman, unaware of Timlin’s passing, suggests Davis get back together with his former partner, an option Davis clearly wishes he could entertain. The suggestion stings, but Davis, already battered and beaten both mentally and emotionally, lets it slide. He understands that no harm was intended by the statement.

Throughout the film, Llewyn grieves for Mike, slowly comes to grips with what happened and accepts that Mike is gone, that Timlin & Davis are no longer and can never be again. So often when we grieve, we do our best to push out memories of those we’ve lost — if these people aren’t in our minds, we can’t be sad that they are no longer around.

But loved ones, friends and family and partners like Mike, never leave our hearts, no matter how hard we try to push them out of our minds; this just isn’t a viable option after a short bit of time. Eventually those around us move forward with their lives, and we must do the same, unless we want to continue living in the painful past. And through Llewyn’s interactions with Jean Berkey and the Gorfeins and Roland Turner and Bud Grossman, he finally recognizes this.

In the closing scene of Inside Llewyn Davis, we see Llewyn again play “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” as he did in the opening scene, except now it feels more like a personal reflection on one’s life than it does a glum, melancholic repression of memories.

And this time, upon finishing, Llewyn follows it up with one more song, “Fare Thee Well.” It’s the same rendition he began playing at the Gorfeins before Lillian jumped in on the second verse. And after the performance, when Llewyn heads back to the bar, we learn that this — and not “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” — is the song Pappi recognizes as one Llewyn and Mike used to play together.

It is here that things come full circle, where the film’s themes of life, death, and grief meet. The opening scene, the one where the playing of “Fare Thee Well” is excised, signifies the loss Llewyn has sustained and his attempt to block the memories of his deceased partner Mike Timlin. The rest of the film up until the final scene is, on the surface, not much more than Llewyn’s journey to find success in the folk music scene, but thematically, it’s much deeper: it is representative of Llewyn’s own grieving process.

Grieving isn’t forgetting the memories of loved ones, of purging our minds of those we’ve lost, but rather it’s allowing their memories to live on in our hearts, to acknowledge that the ones closest to us, though gone, are never forgotten. In this world, people important to us leave indelible stamps on our lives, as Mike has Llewyn’s. We are forever changed by these people, and we can’t simply go on living as if they never existed. Instead, to cope with their loss and continue with our lives, we mustn’t only recognize what the deceased meant to us, we must allow them to live on through us — without doing so, we aren’t living as our true selves, but as a shell of the person we are.

And so, it is the last scene of the film where Llewyn’s grieving process is fully realized, where he acknowledges Mike’s passing and realizes he mustn’t let it haunt him any longer. Sometimes memories arise, painful as they may be at times, but that doesn’t mean we should block them out. Instead, we should allow them to remain, to let the songs of our past be sung and to let them resonate not just in our present but in our future.

With his closing performance, we see that Llewyn has come to terms with Mike’s death. Llewyn can now truly live again, free from the pain and grief, as the memories of Mike — and the songs of Timlin & Davis — live on through him.


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