Inside Ulysses Gorfein

With the internet washed in Oscar buzz, this might not be the best time to sneak in a post about a tabby cat. Unfortunately, Inside Llewyn Davis, one of my favorite films of the year (obligatory self-promotion), isn’t up for Best Picture at this Sunday’s Academy Awards, but there’s a chance it might be remembered longer than some of the actual nominees. This anticipated staying power is driven in part by the amazing performances delivered by Oscar Isaac and crew, and partially due to the superb direction of the Coen brothers. By now most of us are familiar with the story of struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis and his misadventures in 1960’s New York City. Llewyn’s ever present companion isn’t Carey Mulligan or Justin Timberlake but the orange tabby cat Ulysses. Ulysses is the household (apartment-hold?) pet of the Gorfein’s, the characters most accommodating to Llewyn’s selfish acts. Several theories have sprouted up aiming to explain the cat’s meaning to Llewyn and the symbolism behind one of this year’s most talked about movie animalsLet’s dip into a select few of those theories while we wait around for this weekend’s real attraction.

1. The Joel Coen Theory:


In an interview at Cannes last year, Joel Coen remarked “the film doesn’t really have a plot. That concerned us at one point – that’s why we threw the cat in.” This is about as appetizing as watching The Wolf of Wall Street with your mother (or maybe my mother. The excruciating three hours would be filled with “I don’t know about this….,” and “this doesn’t seem right…” and finally “I’m going to go check on that apple pie. Uh…don’t worry about pausing it…”). We can’t seriously take Joel’s word for it right? Right? I mean, why would I spend my Friday night writing a blog post about a cat, spoiling a night of drinking alone in my apartment rejecting my many, many friends numerous requests that I hang out with them, if the cat is just that gross chocolate layer filling out a delicious Ho-Ho? No, that can’t be right. I’d like to think of the cat as the delicious creamy filling in the resurrected Twinkie. (To anyone reading this from outside of the United States, I promise Americans don’t always compare things to Hostess products. Just when it feels right….and it feels right pretty often.)

2. The Cat is Mike 


This is my favorite theory but has not gained the traction that Theory 3 enjoys. The presumption is that Llewyn protects, clings to, and is hesitant to part ways with the cat because the cat represents Mike, the other half of Llewyn’s music duo who recently committed suicide. The well written article linked below expands on the theory, reporting that the “cat is continually trying to run away … and Llewyn is continually chasing after it, trying to hold on.” Llewyn, unable to cope with the loss of his friend and only path to musical success, transfers these feelings subconsciously to the cat. When he finally decides to leave the cat behind at the end of the film, we are to understand that he has at last overcome the loss and is ready to move forward.

Article in Support: Digital Spy

3. The Cat is Llewyn


I’m not as big of a fan of this theory but it does have some interesting arguments. The article linked below posits that the movie deals principally with Llewyn’s search for self and identity (a thought not incompatible with the above theory). Llewyn’s internal struggle mirrors the cat’s own adventures. A good line from the article: “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.” The parallels are there, but I’m casting my vote to the Mike theory, as it matches more closely throughout the movie, and doesn’t feel as much like an overreach.

Article in Support: The Atlantic

Inside Llewyn Davis Ulysses Cat

I’ll be the first to admit that writing a blog post outlining unsubstantiated theories about a movie many of you haven’t seen based on articles I didn’t write seems like a bit of a cop out. But that cat, along with other puzzling aspects of this movie, has bothered me since I walked out of the theater. Inside Llewyn Davis works on multiple levels allowing different viewers to follow the movie as far as they please. One of my coworkers is a huge music fan and a sings in a local band. For her the movie functions chiefly as a great movie about music, which is a completely fair approach. For me, a completely music illiterate electronic music fan, the music was great but the themes of the movie sunk deeper. Unfortunately my confusion about the cat will continue and the issues remains unresolved. Unless Joel and Ethan Coen care to respond to this post. Feel free to respond in the comments Mr. and Mr. Coen. I promise I won’t freak out too much.


Thanks for reading and enjoy the Oscars everyone!


2 thoughts on “Inside Ulysses Gorfein

  1. Symbolism is always a tricky thing, because we can never know what the filmmakers intended us to see. One thing is certain: the cat seems to important to actually take Mr. Coen’s word for it.

    Personally, I think I like the Mike theory more, too. But the Llewyn theory makes sense, as well.


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