In the first 10 minutes of Inside Llewyn Davis, an unidentified stranger knocks the titular character to his knees in an alley behind a cafe in New York’s Greenwich Village. The genesis of this animosity is left unanswered until the final moments of the Coen brothers’ latest dark comedy, leaving us to wonder why anyone would beat up a folk singer.
The scene is the perfect setup for this bleak and witty tale of a striving musician, set in the beatnik scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Helmed by longtime Coen collaborator T Bone Burnett, the tunes in this film — which are performed live — provide bare morbid undertones that correspond with the foremost concepts of the story: poverty, abortion, disappointment and death.
The guitar-strumming Llewyn Davis is played to grungy, dark and handsome perfection by the stylish and calm Juilliard-trained Oscar Isaac. This marks the first time the Miami-bred, Guatemalan-born 33-year-old has anchored a feature, and he carries it off with infectious grace and grit. When he sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in the initial moments of the film, we’re both seduced and heartbroken.
But for his character, a deep tune isn’t enough to win over an audience. He is struggling to make it as a solo artist after his bandmate committed suicide, and his dismal hymns fail to propel him out of dire straits. Unable to afford his own place, he crashes on the couches of friends around town. Yet he’s determined to keep his guitar close by and not sell out.
It seems we’ll have no problem feeling sorry for Llewyn. But the fact he’s an egotistical jackass makes it impossible to feel solidly empathetic toward him. His tenacity is admirable, though painstakingly impractical, which his married lover Jean, played by Carey Mulligan, never fails to point out. The actress, who also played Isaac’s love interest in Drive, is deliciously abrasive in this role as Llewyn’s best friend’s wife, who just might be carrying Llewyn’s baby.
Jean is disgusted with Llewyn’s casual nature and lack of desire for the stable suburban lifestyle, yet she’s attracted to his rough edges. Their back-and-forth dustups speed up the film’s otherwise drowsy pace and offer the most intriguing and hilarious exchanges.
Justin Timberlake, as Jean’s bearded musician husband Jim, has good comedic timing. He’s convincingly quirky and naive, especially when he attempts to record a loony track about President John F. Kennedy with a straight face. And Girls star Adam Driver, as the cowboy hat-wearing folk singer Al Cody, is a riot when adding absurd sound effects to Jim’s soon-to-be hit.
Luck never seems to be on Llewyn’s side. When he hitches a ride to Chicago for a last-chance meeting with stoic music manager Bud Grossman (portrayed by the ever-magnetic F. Murray Abraham), he is told his music isn’t sellable. His traveling companions — bizarre Southern jazz musician Roland Turner, played with raw perfection by Coen regular John Goodman, and the aloof leather coat-wearing stud Johnny Five (a quiet, captivating Garrett Hedlund) — turn out to be a headache when one almost overdoses on drugs and another is arrested.
The film is a heavy downer, and its consistent gray hue enhances the bleakness. But the Coen brothers never fail to weave in bits of saucy irony, giving way for comical moments that bring everything full-circle.
Now back to that alley beat-down: Despite what Llewyn goes through, it becomes clear he deserved it.