Existing somewhere between A Serious Man and A Mighty Wind, the new Coen Brothers creation is a quiet, gentle and lovely examination of a classic Coen hapless loser. Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac in a major star turn, is a couch-surfing folk singer in 1961 New York City who has recently gone solo after the suicide of his singing partner.
The film opens with Davis singing a gorgeous, somber number (“Hang Me,” which would make a fantastic Best Original Song Oscar nominee) at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village. It’s classic folk, yet it also feels and sounds like the current resurgence of folk headed by Mumford & Sons. After the show, he encounters a faceless man in a suit in the back alley who beats him to within an inch of his life. We don’t know why yet, but we know this portentous detail will rear itself again.
After spending a few nights at the pad of a professor friend of his, Davis heads out, guitar in tow, but accidentally lets his friend’s orange-striped tabby out. The door closes and is locked, so Davis reluctantly brings the feline along with him. There is a moment on the subway when we see the cat wide-eyed looking out the subway window, sometimes from his point-of-view of the street names rushing by. It’s a moment of wonder that is among the very best scenes in any film I’ve seen so far this year. There is also a wonderful homage to Breakfast at Tiffany’s with the cute kitty later in the film.
In the bitter cold of winter and cat in hand, Davis calls on friends Jim and Jean (a milquetoast Justin Timberlake and an icy Carey Mulligan, respectively) for a few days' pad crashing. He arrives at the apartment only to find the temperature even more frozen as Jean introduces their friend Troy (Stark Sands), an aw-shucks southern boy just about to head back to the army. Jean frantically writes down “I’m pregnant” on a piece of paper. So yeah, it’s a complicated relationship.
Along the way of Davis’s near Sisyphean (or is it Ulyssean?) journeys of returning the cat and becoming a (consistently) paid musician, he encounters a handful of oddball types. These include Coen Brothers regular John Goodman, who plays a fellow musician like Tennessee Williams’ Big Daddy with a heroin addiction, and Garrett Hedlund, playing a beat poem-mumbling drifter.
It’s a credit to the Coens that they tackle so many styles and subjects yet it’s always easy to identify their work as a Coen Brothers film. Whether high drama or high comedy or somewhere in the middle, their mark of satire that is both poking fun and deeply sincere enables them to continue making their best films even 30 years into their careers. Inside Llewyn Davis is no different, and becomes another arrow in their quiver of great films.