What the hell was going on with the cat?
It’s a question many have asked after seeing Inside Llewyn Davis. Critics agree that the marmalade-colored kitty who unexpectedly joins cranky folk musician Llewyn Davis on his travels around New York City and Chicago adds a great touch of mystery; Anna Silman at Vulture calls it a “cryptic, adorable narrative device,” while Eric Kohn of Indiewire refers to the bond between Llewyn and the cat as “mysteriously inexplicable.” Writes Dana Stevens at Slate, “I think the cat’s (or cats’) fate is connected in some way to the puzzling temporal relationship between those opening and closing scenes at the Gaslight, but after two viewings, I still haven’t figured out quite how.” The cat, then, makes us pause—but we can’t quite pin down why.
So here’s a theory: Llewyn actually is the cat. And the cat is Llewyn. Not in a Tyler Durdencat, no-one-was-really-lapping-up-that-milk-the-whole-time kind of way, but in a very real and appropriately folky way: It seems the Coens, perhaps inspired by their love of mythology (also echoed by other small details of the film, like the tribal masks decorating the Gorfeins' apartment—and Mel’s studio), use the device of the shifty totemic cat, with all of its symbolic meaning, to amplify Llewyn’s quest for identity.
We know that in fictional works, animals that look like or act like people aren’t rare. There are the evil Siamese cats in 101 Dalmatians, and the quintessential “villain-with-cat.” (And even in real life, science remains fascinated by why some people look like their pets.) Cats in fiction also show off their mystical bona fides by serving as conduits between worlds—like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland and the black cat from the stop-motion Coraline.
But the cat from Llewyn takes that further. Yes, at moments it jolts Llewyn in and out of his moments of slumber (cat naps, one could even say) and leads him along an “Incredible Journey,” but it also mirrors him. They don’t look alike—they correspond. It’s kind of like the world of The Amber Spyglass, where animal creatures called daemons house the souls of their human partners. Or in other words, the cat is Llewyn’s furry horcrux.
The Coens even state it in the first seven pages of the script. When Llewyn calls Professor Gorfein’s receptionist, she announces that “Llewyn is the cat,” after mishearing his intended message. There are other hints in the dialogue, too: In an early version of the script, Llewyn tells the elevator operator, “Yeah, I—it’s the Gorfeins’ cat.” The obvious way to read that is as a hesitation, but the subtle accompanying suggestion that “I, Llewyn = the cat” may not be an accident, especially paired with the receptionist’s comment. If you buy this, it adds a fun layer to other moments, like when he yells at Jean that he’s “not a fucking cat!” Why so defensive? Too soon?
Then there are visual clues. During a subway ride, the cat stares into the subway window over Llewyn’s shoulder. In the reflection, we only see the cat’s head—Llewyn’s remains unlit. This gives us the odd image of the cat’s head almost on top of Llewyn’s torso, like the kind of statue an Egyptian Pharoah’s artisans might have sculpted if they had spent more time in smoky Greenwich Village bars.. Then, on the road trip to Chicago, Llewyn and the cat look at the Beat-poet driver in an eerily simultaneous way. After Johnny Five is done muttering, both Llewyn and the cat turn their heads away to the right at precisely the same time and angle.
There’s also a parallel between Llewyn’s choices and the cat’s presence. For example Llewyn, ever the victim of his own choices, passes the highway exit to Akron and the warm promises of home and hearth and perhaps even love. Right afterwards, he hits the cat. There’s a potential link between the emotional hurt he just did himself and the harm he’s just inflicted on the cat.