The sounds of the early 1960s folk music revival float on the air like a strange, intoxicating perfume in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a boldly original, highly emotional journey through Greenwich Village nightclubs, a bleak New York winter, and one man’s fraught efforts to reconcile his life and his art. A product of the same deeply personal end of the Coens’ filmmaking spectrum previously responsible for the likes of “Barton Fink” and “A Serious Man,” this darkly comic musical drama with an elliptical narrative and often brusque protagonist won’t corral the same mass audience as “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit.” But strong reviews — for the pic itself and its stupendous soundtrack — should make this December release an awards-season success for distrib CBS Films.
As they did with the 1940s Hollywood setting of “Barton Fink,” the Coens have again taken a real time and place and freely made it their own, drawing on actual persons and events for inspiration, but binding themselves only to their own bountiful imaginations. The result is a movie that neatly avoids the problems endemic to most period movies — and biopics in particular — in favor of a playful, evocatively subjective reality. Perhaps most surprising to some viewers will be the pic’s surfeit of something the Coens have sometimes been accused of lacking: deep, heartfelt sincerity.
Where Clifford Odets provided the inspiration for “Fink’s” eponymous playwright, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) has been similarly modeled on the late Dave Van Ronk, a mainstay of the ’60s New York folk revival whose vaunted reputation among musicians never translated into the commercial success enjoyed by many of his contemporaries. Like Van Ronk, the pic’s Davis is a guitar-strumming balladeer whose repertoire consists mostly of vintage American roots music of the sort catalogued by musicologists John and Alan Lomax as they traversed the southern U.S. One such tune, the haunting “Dink’s Song” (aka “Fare Thee Well”) becomes the pic’s melancholy refrain in a version purportedly cut by Davis and his former partner, Mike (British musician Marcus Mumford), before the latter’s suicide rendered Llewyn a solo act.
This is how we first see Llewyn, lost in song onstage at MacDougal Street’s Gaslight Cafe circa 1961 — the year that a certain freewheeling tumbleweed from Minnesota would turn up on the folk scene and throw the doors open wide. But for the time being, Davis barely ekes out an existence from a cut of the door and the kindness of friends with sofas. Upon leaving the Gaslight for the night, he is confronted in the back alley by a shadowy figure who cold-cocks him for no (immediately) apparent reason.
From there, the pic adopts the odyssey narrative the Coens have employed on several previous occasions, most notably “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” though the tone here is more Joycean than Homeric. Waking up on what seems like the next morning in the apartment of a Columbia U. professor friend, a disoriented Llewyn pulls himself together and sets off on the long subway ride back to the Village — but not before accidentally letting out the pet cat. For the remainder of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” this uncooperative animal seems to be leading Llewyn from one strange adventure to the next, like a beatnik Leopold Bloom on the trail of a feline Stephen Dedalus.
If his music career is dangling by a thread, Llewyn’s personal life qualifies as an outright shambles. The sort of person who expects others to support him but rarely returns the favor, the commitment-phobic singer practically has a VIP account with the local abortionist, and may be back again after learning his brief fling with married folk singer Jean (Carey Mulligan) has resulted in another bun in the oven. Like most of the pic’s cast outside of Isaac, Mulligan has relatively little screen time but makes the most of every minute, as does Justin Timberlake as her oblivious nice-guy husband (and singing partner), Jim.
What’s a starving musician to do except keep gigging? So Llewyn drifts along, sitting in as a session musician on Jim’s novelty record “Please, Mr. Kennedy” (the pic’s lone original song) and, in the movie’s surrealist centerpiece, traveling to Chicago in the company of a drug-addled, partly paralyzed blues man (a cross between Doc Pomus and Dr. John) played with magnificent, scene-guzzling brio by John Goodman. But the Windy City brings only wind, snow and an impromptu audition for a storied club owner and manager (an excellent F. Murray Abraham) which, in anyone else’s movie, would be the moment when Llewyn is finally discovered and can start paying the rent. Instead, he merely returns to Coenville and to pushing his boulder up life’s steeply angled hill.
Yet for all the pain in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” there is also abundant joy — the joy of the music itself, exquisitely arranged by T Bone Burnett and sung live on set by the actors themselves. Both dramatically and musically, the film excels at depicting the many varied styles that wound up grouped under the folk umbrella — from corny, Kingston Trio-esque harmonists to protest singers like Pete Seeger and self-proclaimed “neo-ethnics” such as Van Ronk. In keeping with the Coens’ interest in matters of Jewish cultural identity, the pic also touches — but never dwells — on the folk scene’s abiding spirit of self-reinvention, which allowed a Jewish doctor’s son from Queens to become the singing cowboy Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (a model for the movie’s Al Cody, played by Adam Driver).
Above all, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a revelatory showcase for Isaac, who sings with an angelic voice and turns a potentially unlikable character into a consistently relatable, unmistakably human presence — a reminder that humility and genius rarely make for comfortable bedfellows. Tech contributions are outstanding on all counts, especially the wintry, desaturated lensing of Bruno Delbonnel (pinch hitting for usual Coen d.p. Roger Deakins) and the inspired period detailing of production designer Jess Gonchor, whose bygone Greenwich Village abounds with cramped cold-water flats and Kafka-esque hallways narrowing toward infinity.
PHOTOS: ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ World Premiere at Cannes: