For an ostensible, totally loose biopic about Dave Van Ronk, Inside Llewyn Davis leans rather heavily on an incredibly serendipitous allusion to The Odyssey, and more than a decade after releasing O Brother, Where Art Thou?, to boot. A story about one man’s navigations through the choppy waters of New York’s 1960’s folk music scene might be the last place anybody would expect to find references to Homer’s ancient epic; leave it to Joel and Ethan Coen to subvert expectations, then, because their film practically hinges on a synchronized collision between hoary fiction and the more recent, very real history of Van Ronk and the folk revival movement he contributed to – at least as far as it concerns the fate of its titular character.
That, of course, would be veteran moocher and unapologetic cad Llewyn Davis; the place where reality and art harmonize, meanwhile, is none other than the Gate of Horn, the Chicago folk music club where countless folk luminaries – including Bob Gibson, Roger McGuinn, Odetta, Shel Silverstein, Sonny Terry, Bob Dylan, and Brownie McGhee – began their careers. Roughly halfway through the film, Llewyn, having exhausted the patience of his friends (who could more accurately just be called colleagues; they don’t all necessarily like Llewyn so much as they tolerate his parade of foibles), sojourns out to Illinois in hope of scoring a gig at the Gate; it’s a feat he accomplishes mostly by being present, so that owner Bud Grossman can’t brush him off without hearing him play.
Of course, Inside Llewyn Davis is a Coen brothers’ film, so what happens next feels practically inevitable: Llewyn auditions to disappointing, almost humiliating results, rendering all of his efforts for naught. “I don’t see any money in this”, the flinty Grossman proclaims, leaving Llewyn with no choice but to motor back to New York, where he cashes in his ambitions for a more pragmatic life path in the merchant marines.
There is, of course, more to Llewyn’s story than that, but little of his subsequent fortunes turn out favorably for him – in point of fact, the road back home is fairly littered with bad omens, not the least of which is the brief but unmistakable appearance of none other than Dylan himself, signaling not a mortal doom but certainly an unhappy ending for Llewyn’s musical aspirations. At least he keeps his friends’ cat from bolting out their apartment door again.
But for as much narrative as unfolds before and after his ill-fated venture to the Gate of Horn, there’s an undeniable sense that Inside Llewyn Davis’ plot very strongly hinges on it. That makes a good deal of sense from a historical perspective; founded in the basement of Chicago’s Rice Hotel by Albert Grossman (the real-life counterpart to the film’s Bud Grossman) in 1956, the Gate of Horn is widely recognized as a not-insignificant landmark in the resurgence of folk music more than fifty years ago; Grossman intended for the establishment to provide a showcase for the musicians he managed, and indeed the Gate of Horn served as a proving ground and creative sanctuary for a wide array of up and coming singers, playing for an audience of one hundred every night.
So it’s only natural that Llewyn’s eight hundred mile pilgrimage, just one of many made by starving musicians such as him, should have such a tangible effect on the shape of the film; for him, traveling to the Gate of Horn represents his best bet at eking out a name for himself as a solo act (following the death of his partner, whose specter hangs over Inside Llewyn Davis like a funereal shroud). In a movie that’s entirely devoted to documenting its central character’s personal odyssey, though, the most significant nod to Homer’s classic text itself is actually found in the destination rather than the journey; Llewyn is no Odysseus, something the Coens punctuate quite clearly when they reveal the name of a certain tiny, hirsute member of the cast.
On the other hand, he is a dreamer, and so the Gate of Horn comes to take on a special significance within the film by consequence. (And by a very fortuitous stroke of cosmic luck.) The Gate of Horn, after all, isn’t just a club; it’s a literary image that crops up in book nineteen of The Odyssey, as Penelope describes a vision she experiences in which her long-lost husband returns home. However, she chooses not to trust it. Dreams, she muses, either pass through a gate of horn or a gate of ivory; false dreams flow through the former, true dreams the latter. Dreams can deceive the dreamers, but they can also be prophetic, as we see once Odysseus and Penelope do ultimately reunite.
So when Llewyn makes his trek to the Gate of Horn, he’s not simply going so that he can win an opportunity to be featured in Bud Grossman’s club. He’s quite literally going in search of the truth – the truth about his chances of succeeding on his own, and the truth about his talents as a musician.
The problem, of course, with seeking out the truth is that you may actually find it, and when you do, you may not like what you hear; thus does Llewyn’s visit to the Gate of Horn end, where he receives a frank dose of reality courtesy of Grossman. Not only are Llewyn’s chances of living off of his music nil, but he’s just not cut out to be a front man, not like that Troy Nelson fellow we meet toward the beginning of the film. Llewyn’s good, in other words, but he’s just not good enough, regardless of the insult the Coens add to injury in the film’s closing minutes by heralding Dylan’s coming as a folk icon.
It’s not all tragedy for Llewyn, mind – he manages to achieve a sliver of his dreams in the final act by taking the stage at the Gaslight Café, though the movie minimizes even this little triumph by placing Llewyn on the receiving end of a beating in an alleyway moments later. But that, perhaps, is just part of the lesson he learns at the Gate of Horn; he’s not destined to be a figurehead of the folk movement, but he’s able enough to be one of its many apostles. That’s more or less reflected by the outcome of Van Ronk’s contributions throughout his career; today, despite his obvious cultural impact, people tend to remember him only after the Dylans of the world, though like Llewyn, Van Ronk is more than good enough to be worthy of remembrance at all.
Maybe someone, somewhere will remember Llewyn, too; even he has friends, no matter how much his grouchy veneer sets him at odds with them, and by the end of the film, he has a crowd that cares enough to applaud his performance. But he needs to be brilliant to really matter, and as the echoes of his tune die out in the Gate of Horn, the Coens make the plain, naked truth apparent: Llewyn’s just a hair’s breadth short of earning that distinction. It’s the tragedy that defines his entire existence.