Lots of spoilers of decades worth of books and movies follow.
You’re supposed to like Llewyn Davis, at least sort of—to sympathize with his handful of better qualities, his talent for folksinging and his occasional displays of decency, while still recognizing that he’s prone to anger, meanness and selfishness. The Coens pull it off, fashioning a complex character even while letting him be mean to a cat—a classic symbol of literary and cinematic villainy.
Buñuel notoriously established a character’s anti-socialness in L’Age D’Or by having him kick a dog. Non-sociopathic general audiences are sympathetic to pets, more so than any other category of being—more than babies, even; the horrors inflicted on infants in Trainspotting and The Road don’t provoke tears like similar fates meted out to animals do. This has been exploited time and again: in Of Mice and Men, the death of Candy’s dog, and Lennie’s later accidental killing of the puppy, both foreshadow Lennie’s coming death; George’s assassination of his friend is so moving because it’s essentially the putting down of a giant, clumsy, lovable mutt, the human embodiment of the bond between a man and his dog. (See, later, Old Yeller.) In Umberto D., de Sica rings much pathos from the title character’s finding renewed purpose in his life through the obligation he has to his beloved terrier. In more recent years, I Am Legend manipulated viewers by making them watch Will Smith’s only friend, his German Shepherd, get hurt. In the pulpy Brian Cox vehicle Red, the plot revolves around the mean and senseless murder of his dog, our heartstrings tugged by shots of the scratched-up door the dog will never scratch again.
We love characters like Umberto who love their pets, and despise those like Cox’s teenage antagonists who would harm them. So it’s amazing that the Coens ask us to keep liking Llewyn ever after what he does to that cat. He first takes custody of some friends’ feline after it sneaks out their front door with him, the folk singer cradling it on the subway from the Upper West Side down to the West Village, where he drops it off in other friends’ apartment. It escapes out their window; Llewyn finds it days later, or thinks he does, actually nabbing a different orange tabby from the sidewalks of New York. This cat, then, belongs to no one but him, and he takes it with him on a road trip to Chicago.
Llewyn’s commitment to these cats asks us to like him: even though he’s not great to the people around him, at least he’s kind enough to care for those who really need the caring. But on the drive to the Midwest, things go bad for the cat while they get even worse for Llewyn. When the car’s driver is unexpectedly arrested on the side of the road, taking the car keys with him, Llewyn has to start walking. Before he does, there are a few shots of him looking at the cat and the cat looking back at him, a masterful application of that film theory classic the Kuleshov Effect, in which a shot of an expressionless face begins to display emotion depending on what you juxtapose it with: you see sadness when it’s shown between shots of a girl in a coffin, hunger between images of a bowl of soup, and so on. The cat looks at Llewyn, Llewyn looks at the cat, and knowing what you know about the circumstances, you start to see extraordinary feeling in that feline’s face.
Watching this sequence, I thought, “ok, he’s going to take the cat, c’mon now.” But then I realized, holy shit, no he’s not—and he doesn’t, shutting the door instead, leaving the animal in the care of the crusty, heroin-addicted, passed-out jazz musician played by John Goodman, who made enough homosexual innuendos about Llewyn’s cat ownership that we know he’s not about to adopt it when he wakes up. It looks like an act of betrayal; by ditching the animal, we suddenly don’t want to like him anymore, because people aren’t supposed to do that. But maybe generously you could see it as an act of mercy: Llewyn knows he’s in a bad situation, and he’s not responsible enough anyway to be charged with custodianship of anyone or anything. That cat might be better off fending for itself. But goddamn if Llewyn doesn’t hurt that cat again, this time literally, hitting it while driving a car back east, pulling into the shoulder and squinting through blankets of falling snow to watch it hobble back into the woods along the side of the road. He drives away, the front bumper splashed with blood.
Llewyn’s relationship with the cat is indicative of all the relationships in his life: how he just keeps hurting other people, making their lives more painful by his existence. Back in New York, he stands for a long time in front of a movie theater, staring at a poster for The Incredible Journey, suggesting that if he regrets any of the miseries of the past two hours, it’s the fate of that cat. The Coens don’t want you to see what he did as reprehensible, just as the flaws of a complex man. Art throughout the decades has asked us to sneer and jeer at those who would do wrong to a domesticated animal. The Coens instead audaciously ask us to recognize Llewyn’s humanity—and still sort of like him anyway.
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