You were expecting A Mighty Wind, maybe? Folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is homeless in the winter of 1961—he’s a couch surfer especially unappreciated by Jean (a miscast Carey Mulligan), the girlfriend of his buddy Jim (Justin Timberlake). Jean is pregnant after a misspent night with Llewyn, and she hates him for it.
Davis is making a few dollars here and there playing trad folk at pass-the-hat “basket houses” in Greenwich Village, but the situation takes a toll when he loses his host’s cat. On a spur of the moment trip to Chicago to see a promoter, Davis tries to escape his personal hell as well as the memories of a long-gone partner he once had.
Inside Llewyn Davis is intelligently anti-nostalgic—it makes you not want to go back to the 1960s. As with TV’s Mad Men, you remember what a tightly run, unsparing place J.F.K.’s America was. Bruno Delbonnel’s dove-gray photography puts a halo of frost on New York, but the Coens’ usual depth of frame is lucid as always.
As a musician, Isaac is sensationally watchful and sympathetic, even playing a seething man who doesn’t give up much. He pours full tragic force into “Death of Queen Jane,” a ballad about Jane Seymour’s demise in 1537. But his Llewyn also plays along on a goofy novelty song about John Glenn’s then-upcoming rocket ride.
The humor isn’t just in easy, dumb gags, like having a middle-aged intellectual (Robin Bartlett) yell the word “scrotum.” The most deadly wit comes from Davis’ co-passenger on the Chicago trip, a fountain of bile named Roland Turner—played by John Goodman, once again the Coens’ wrecking ball swung against an unoffending wanderer.
Watching Inside Llewyn Davis, some will shrug, as F. Murray Abraham’s promoter Bud Grossman does, and say “I don’t see a lot of money here.” But though the film isn’t cuddly, it’s loaded with soul. And it is one memorably harrowing look at an artist pushed to the point of oblivion by scorn, misfortune and the iron hand of the market.
‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ opens Friday, Dec. 20, in limited theaters.