Inside Llewyn Davis

When the Coen brothers decide to make a movie about the Greenwich Village folk-music scene in the 1960s, they don't screw around. Not content to capture the sights and sounds, they fix it so you inhale the place. They have help, of course: Jess Gonchor's detailed production design, Bruno Delbonnel's camera eye for light and shadow, and T Bone Burnett's keen ear for roots music that he brought to the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Oscar Isaac (Drive) gives one of the best performances of a strong year as Llewyn Davis, a fictional musician whose career runs parallel to Bob Dylan's, except for the success part. Llewyn has more in common with the late Dave Van Ronk, a talent unblessed by fortune. Llewyn is also a bit of a shit. He mooches offa professor friend at Columbia, then loses the guy's cat (a shameless scene-stealer), insults the family of his dead-by-suicide partner (sung by Marcus Mumford), and knocks up Jean (Carey Mulligan), the wife of his folkie pal Jim (Justin Timberlake, playing square with brio). Don't worry, Jean gives him unholy hell. Mulligan shoots verbal bullets with a marksman's precision.

Llewyn's life is hardly freewheelin'. At the start, the Coens show him beaten in an alley, then circle back to that humiliation at the end. We see him hustle a ride to Chicago, only to be maligned with wounding hilarity by Roland Turner (John Goodman), the junkie bluesman in the back seat. Note to the Academy: Give Goodman the Oscar nomination you've owed him for decades. He's magnificent.

Accusations that the Coens run low on emotion should fade away when the music fades in. The score is pure pleasure. That's when you learn what's inside Llewyn Davis. The Juilliard-trained Isaac has authentic musical chops, performing whole songs, not snippets. You feel the sting in Llewyn's audition for a club impresario, played with a fine severity by F. Murray Abraham. Is Llewyn the real deal or just kidding himself? One thing's for sure about this raw provocation from the Coens: Like the music, the pain runs deep and true. You'll laugh till it hurts.

From The Archives Issue 1197: December 5, 2013