Cold, embittered, and beset by the weight of his own defeatism, Llewyn Davis stumbles upon a movie poster for The Incredible Journey, and for the first time in his own journey, pauses for a moment of reflection.
In the Coen brother’s snowy, gloomy Greenwich Village rife young dreamers and melancholy turns of mind, this small moment of focus on a 1963 (either the Coen’s wanted to use it too badly, or, most likely, they didn’t notice, but Llewyn’s actually looking at an ad for a movie that’s two years in the future) Disney animal adventure is certainly unusual. Maybe it’s just a joke, or maybe the Coens were just feeling a little nostalgic, or maybe it actually pertains to the very ideas running through Inside Llewyn Davis.
Is it the tagline, "nothing could stop them...only instinct to guide them across 200 perilous miles of Canadian wilderness!" or the movie itself that they were drawn to? Perhaps a little of both. It could be a little tongue-in-cheek, but front and center on the poster is the cat, which could serve as a droll acknowledgment of the wild exploits of the unfortunate little orange-colored pet in this movie.
More importantly, though, is that tagline. When the camera cuts to a close up of it, the Coens are clearly giving us a cue that these words might be worth considering in light of Llewyn’s own journey. The camera then switches to a shot Llewyn reading the phrase, maybe playing them in his head and finding some meaning in them in relation to his own life. It may indicate that Llewyn, enveloped in a cloud of despondence, is going to find—rather than lose—the determination to succeed. Or it could be quite a bit darker than that. Llewyn’s narcissism has left him with not much in the world by way of friends or a home, thus his journey through life is going to be rough, like the wilderness, and alone, with instinct as his only real friend. People will continue to offer him their couches and their coats—he’s too charming and endearing for them not to—but if he can’t even recognize a true cat, how will he ever recognize value in other people?
This might be reading a bit too much into such a small moment in the movie, yet when fully ruminated it makes pretty good sense. The brothers stated that the genesis of Inside Llewyn Davis was formed when they asked themselves why a folk singer might get beat up outside of a bar. The film opens with Llewyn getting that fist to the face, and then flashes back a few days in the musician’s life so the Coens can answer that exact question. Thus the journey for Llewyn is more psychological than spatial. Though he’s constantly moving about, and at one point makes a crucial trek to Chicago, the movie’s really an odyssey of the mind. Llewyn’s world is one where he believes he’s the better musician but keeps being told that the other guy is actually superior. His egotism is in direct conflict with the harsh realities of the folk music business, and the clashing of the two puts him on a downward trajectory leading him to that fateful night outside the bar. While the question is answered, the movie doesn’t provide us with any real sense of closure in terms of Llewyn’s actual life. So when he encounters the Incredible Journey poster, one gathers that he’s not reflecting on the road he’s been on, but the one that’s ahead and that the viewer will not be a part of.
It's a little funny to see Llewyn finally find some truth in...a poster for a kids' movie. Then again, for a man so opposed to careerism, conformity, and the value of others as humans, it's probably going to be things like this that help him get along through his rough and tumble world.