12/22/2013 09:57 am ET Updated Feb 21, 2014

Hit and Myth: Inside Llewyn Davis

What happens to a musician when desperation overshadows inspiration? The atmospheric new film Inside Llewyn Davis, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, tracks a grieving folk singer-songwriter in search of his Muse -- or any Muse. Set in the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961, the story centers on one week in the life of the down-and-out performer Llewyn (convincingly played by Oscar Isaac), as he moves from couch to couch, unceremoniously crashing at the homes of friends and family without money or a gig, and always connected somehow to a cat named Ulysses.

With guitar in tow, moody but talented Llewyn navigates the vagaries of the New York folk music world looking for royalties, or a job -- some kind of a last-ditch break. Llewyn learns he may have impregnated Jean, the girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) of his good friend Jim (Justin Timberlake). While arranging for a "procedure" for Jean, Llewyn finds out that he has a two-year old child possibly living in Ohio, because a previous paramour named Diane did not "terminate" a pregnancy as he'd arranged. Llewyn seemingly sparks fractured feelings wherever he goes, a reflection of his own inner turmoil, including at the apartment of sociologist Mitch Gorfein (Ethan Phillips) and wife Lillian (Robin Bartlett), and at his own sister Joy's home (the always excellent Jeanine Serralles).

After a surprise paying gig--a studio session on a gimmicky song about outer space -- Llewyn decides to hitch a ride to Chicago, to see if Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), an impresario, will book him at the Gate of Horn club. He shares a ride with the mysterious jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman), driven by his taciturn "poet-valet," Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). A cat, mistaken for Ulysses, comes along for the trip, too. All signposts point to the underworld.

At this juncture in the film, I was reminded of another Coen film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and not just because of the casting of a terrific John Goodman in both. The road trip becomes a existential odyssey. Along the way, Turner has a drug-related accident in a bathroom stall at a Fred Harvey's; Five is taken away abruptly by the police; and Llewyn trudges on alone on foot to Chicago, determined to audition for Grossman. In Homer's The Odyssey, the gate of polished horn is mentioned in Book Nineteen as a portal through which, if passed, dreams may be true. After Llewyn sings for him in the dark empty Gate of Horn club, Grossman isn't enthusiastic. Discouraged, Llewyn hitches a ride back to New York with another stranger; driving in a snowstorm, he hits an animal. Back home, Llewyn attempts to re-enroll in the Merchant Marines, adding a seafaring aspect (also reminiscent of Homer's The Odyssey) to the adventure. But before he sails away, Llewyn sings a song for his aging father Hugh (Stan Carp) in a nursing home, and has one last chance to perform at the Gaslight on a night when a writer from The New York Times will be there.

Llewyn's constant companion/ally in the film, through various mishaps, is a reddish tabby named Ulysses. The cat functions as both a symbol and a spirit guide to Llewyn, even returning "home" before Llewyn does. (At an audience discussion at the Landmark Theatre on Dec. 20, 2013, in Los Angeles, Oscar Isaac described working with 5 different cats while filming, including one that had to be tied to him in order to keep the feline safely tucked into Isaac's arms.)

The name "Ulysses," Latin for "Odysseus," suggests The Odyssey; Llewyn and the cat begin a journey through the city together when the cat escapes from the Gorfeins' apartment. A mistaken cat goes on the initial car trip (although eventually abandoned with Turner). Llewyn injures an animal, by accident, on the road. Late in the film, the animal/journey connection to Llewyn is highlighted by the Coen Brothers, as a shot lingers on a movie poster for the 1963 film The Incredible Journey -- about animals who search for their owners by traveling a great distance (released two years after this film's time frame). Like a feral cat, Llewyn prowls, searches for food, sleeps wherever he can. Ulysses the cat incites Llewyn's journey, and is a signifier along the way. Cats were worshipped in ancient Egypt as deities, seen as protectors, and in this film, Ulysses has a spiritual presence, tied to Llewyn's arc, and pointing him towards "home." Ulysses seems to embody what's "inside" Llewyn; the term "cat" is also related to jazz musicians.

The word "music" is linked to the Muses in mythology, its invention credited to Apollo, Cadmus, Orpheus, and Amphion in the Greek pantheon, according to Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant in The Dictionary of Symbols (687). The classical nine Muses, under Apollo's aegis, are the goddesses of inspiration in the arts, literature and science. They are especially connected to poetry.

The haunting, lyrical folk music in this film, produced by T Bone Burnett, is located on the cusp of Bob Dylan's scene-changing arrival in the Sixties. Llewyn has lost a connection to his Muses at this juncture in his life; can he reconnect and/or find new ones? Is it the end of the road for him artistically? How much more of the debilitating "musician's odyssey" can he endure? These are the questions we ponder at the film's end. But if Ulysses serves as a key signifier, it's worth reflecting on this: in myth and folklore, cats have nine lives.