Folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is having a bad week. A really bad week. The Coen brothers’ latest film opens with the title character giving an excellent performance of a moving, traditional folk ballad at a coffeehouse, and then immediately getting the shit kicked out of him in an alley.
It’s a really nasty shit-kicking, too, polished off with genuine spite.
That’s just the beginning, however. Davis is broke. He’s homeless. He drifts from couch to couch across Manhattan living on the kindness of strangers. His debut solo record isn’t selling. A sometime lover needs money for an abortion. And, to top it all off, he loses one of his patrons’ pet cat.
That cat—or, more specifically, a series of orange tabby cats—proves, oddly enough, to be the second most important character in the picture. The cat’s an almost mystical figure—shades of A Serious Man—appearing at various points through the story, haunting Davis.
Inside Llewyn Davis is, on the surface, in the manner of earlier Coen films A Serious Man and Barton Fink, in which a hapless Job-like protagonist suffers an increasingly apocalyptic series of disasters courtesy of fate, God or (to the filmmakers’ critics) the mean-spiritedness of the Coens themselves. The difference here is that, unlike Barton Fink, there’s a real sense that Llewyn Davis doesn’t deserve all this crap; that, unlike Larry Gopnik, he has a real chance to learn from his calamities; and that, just maybe, his fate isn’t cosmically personal. The film has a specific historical context—New York City in February 1961—that lends credence to the last possibility.
Isaac is terrific as Davis: ambitious, desperate, ego-driven and haunted by his failures. And he can sing. (After giving terrific performances in stuff like Sucker Punch, this role is a real breakthrough for Isaac.) Carey Mulligan is amusingly pissed-off as one half of a folk duo with a grinningly eager Justin Timberlake; F. Murray Abraham is imposing and direct as the Albert Grossman-type impresario who gives Davis the final verdict on his career prospects; and John Goodman is hilarious as a junkie jazz musician who drips contempt for folkies like Davis with every syllable. And then there’s the re-creation of 1961 Greenwich Village: It’s the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan come to life in all it’s gray, gritty, romantic glory, and an important character in the drama.
There’s no shortage of that trademark Coen comedy, either: When Davis visits his father in a nursing home and sings the old man’s favorite ballad, dad shits himself. But the filmmakers don’t shit on Llewyn Davis, and that’s something.