It’s the winter of 1961. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a struggling folk musician, is grabbing one-night gigs where he can, sleeping on friends’ couches and hoping for that big break.
Llewyn is a traditional folkie. He scoffs at the new style of folk just coming into vogue as performed by the likes of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. Consequently, he finds himself regarded more and more as a pariah by booking agents and fellow musicians alike, but remains arrogantly oblivious of the changing times.
He’d had his shot. He was once part of a duo that had cut a somewhat successful album, but his partner jumped off the George Washington bridge, leaving a hole in his soul. His subsequent solo effort, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is moribund. Still, it’s tough for us to feel compassion for him. Admittedly, he’s in a tough spot, but he’s also an arrogant jerk who leeches off his ever-shrinking circle of friends, including Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan). Jean confronts him with the news that she’s pregnant and is fairly sure the child is his. His only acknowledgment of responsibility is to offer to pay for the abortion.
And when good-hearted Jim, unaware of their dalliance, gets him a gig as a backup singer for a recording of his atrocious novelty song called “Please Mr. Kennedy” that sounds more like Allan Sherman than Phil Ochs, he signs away any royalties for an immediate $200 payment. Even his manager, Mel Novikoff (Jerry Grayson), has nothing to offer him but the coat off his back.
He hears about a potential gig at a club in Chicago and shares a ride with friends of friends, junkie jazz musician Roland Turner (an obscenely hilarious John Goodman) and hipster actor Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). The drive is awful, coming to an abrupt conclusion, and he is forced to hitch the rest of the way to town, only to be faced with more rejection.
The chill inherent in the story is enhanced by the production. Bruno Debonnel’s desaturated cinematography is affectingly icy. In my mind’s eye, I keep remembering the film as having been shot in black-and-white, even though I know it’s not. Jess Gonchor’s production design nicely recreates the feel of the ’60s Village, aided by Mary Zophres’ evocative costuming. The songs, produced by T Bone Burnett, are well-chosen and more than competently performed by the cast, including an unseen Marcus Mumford as Llewyn’s late partner.
Isaac is just sensational as the antihero Llewyn. The Coens explained in interviews that they were looking for either a great actor who could sing or a singer who could really act. They found their man here. Llewyn is so unattractive a person, yet when he picks up his guitar and begins to sing, you can’t help but fall for him (which is obviously what happened to Jean and the other women he impregnated).
Throughout the film, cats serve as a metaphor for his life (one is even named Ulysses). They run away, he rescues them; they become inconvenient, he abandons them. That’s the way it goes.
A beautifully surreal cat-centric scene occurs when Llewyn, taking his turn driving through the snowy nighttime Illinois wilderness, accidentally hits one. He rushes out to see if it’s all right. There’s blood on the fender, and he spots it limping into the woods. For a moment he stands there, helplessly watching it disappear into the darkness before getting back in the car.
Davis’ character is based on real-life Village folkie Dave Van Ronk, but this strange, downbeat milieu is strictly Coen Brothers. And it really sticks with you.