Movie review: ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ is a captivating portrait of a complicated artist

Cinematic history is filled with musician characters who sacrifice relationships and/or physical health while pursuing artistic dreams.

Usually, these characters are based wholly (“Walk the Line”) or partially (“The Rose”) on famous real-life musicians.

But what about the little guys, toiling in small clubs, hauling boxes of their unsold albums back to tiny apartments where they’re camping on couches? The ones who refuse to take day jobs, even if it means mooching off others.

They’re selfish and single-minded, too, but without the fame to soften it.

Joel and Ethan Coen’s cynical yet completely captivating “Inside Llewyn Davis” pays tribute to them by following a week in the life of a struggling, fictional singer (Oscar Isaac, in a star-making turn).

The Coens have built a rich setting for him – the 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene just before Bob Dylan hit – but Llewyn is a timeless, me-first artist character who thinks he’s uncompromising when he’s actually compromising what matters, like friendships.

He might not seem like someone you would want to hang out with for the course of nearly two-hour movie, but he is.

Imbued with a surly magnetism by Isaac, Llewyn is quick witted and shows a way with a song. The film surrounding him ably mixes dark humor, period authenticity and polished yet heartfelt musical performances.

Isaac, a Juilliard graduate in his most prominent role to date, lends supple, slightly gritty vocals to “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” a song associated with Dave Van Ronk, the late real-life folkie from whose memoir the Coens also took biographical details.

But “Inside” is not a biopic. Van Ronk was well-known in folk circles, and was said to be a nice guy.

Llewyn radiates an intelligence that separates him from typically hapless male Coen leads (”Fargo,” “Raising Arizona”). Llewyn’s hapless moments are situational, not systemic, with most resulting from his risky career choice or bad attitude.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” thus exists somewhere near the middle of the tragicomic Coen scale whose extremes are the grim “A Serious Man” and the absurdist “Arizona.”

A New York City-born natural skeptic, Llewyn wraps his intelligence in barbed remarks revealing his resentment of others’ potential success. Llewyn suggests that an unfailingly polite singing soldier (Stark Sands) is a robot. Llewyn sees his married singer friends Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) as “careerist” because they tailor their music toward record sales instead of coffee-house applause.

But Isaac lets sadness creep to Llewyn’s surface when talk turns to his former singing partner, with whom he formed a duo more successful than his current solo act. Mouthy when heckling fellow artists at the Gaslight Café, Llewyn clams up when the partner is mentioned.

There’s irony in a closed-off wiseacre choosing the most earnest musical genre. But Isaac bridges this gap by changing Llewyn’s demeanor when he’s on stage. Behind a microphone, he’s emotional, vulnerable. Music clearly moves him, even when he’s cutting a novelty record called “Please Mr. Kennedy” in a studio session led by Jim. (Timberlake shows off his lovely tenor in “Inside,” but his role is tiny.)

Folk purist Llewyn thinks “Mr. Kennedy” is garbage. But the song’s catchiness sweeps him up anyway, just as it does the viewer. Isaac’s enthusiastic body language betraying his character’s disdain.

The Coens, native Minnesotans like Dylan and Americana-music revivalists via their 2000 film “O Brother Where Art Thou?,” respect roots music. They let “Inside’s” musical numbers breathe, sometimes for several minutes. Mumford & Sons singer Marcus Mumford, who is married to Mulligan and whose band leads the current folk resurgence, helped with a soundtrack produced, like the one for “O Brother,” by T Bone Burnett.

Apart from the music scenes, the movie is rather active – surprising considering its folk-world setting and how little actually happens in it. (The Coens threaten to introduce a substantial plot development at one point, then abandon it – an act that enhances the movie’s mischievous charm).

As a character study of Llewyn, “Inside” is on the move because he’s on the move, always humping it to the next gig or free couch. His friends’ apartments, entered via fire escape or single-person-wide hallway, are modest but offer shelter for a guy with only a thin corduroy jacket to shield him from the winter cold.

The film’s clouded, color-desaturated visuals enhance the chilliness of Llewyn’s daily journeys on city sidewalks. According to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s camera, the sun emits the same amount of power as the cigarette-smoke-hazed spotlight on a folk-club stage.

The Coens stoke a sense of community centered at the Gaslight and at Jean and Jim’s apartment, which the couple open to Llewyn and other musicians. Jean took her embrace of the community too far by sleeping with Llewyn. Pregnant, she’s unsure who the father is, and blames Llewyn.

Mulligan and Isaac, who played spouses in 2011’s “Drive,” show a familiarity in their scenes together, though an uneasy one. Mulligan goes rigid with rage when Jean is with Llewyn, creating a stark contrast between the private, angry Jean and the wholesome folkie on stage.

Llewyn takes Jean’s abuse because he’s just self-aware enough to know when he’s truly crossed a line. But he’s so consumed with making a living in music that he walls out his affection for Jean and Jim, just like his affection for his former partner.

The Coens symbolically chip away at that barrier, through Llewyn’s encounters with a snobbish jazz musician (John Goodman, hilarious and then haunting) whose lonely existence serves as a cautionary tale, and an orange tabby.

The Coens present the cat, of which Llewyn takes temporary custody when it escapes his friends’ apartment, as a manifestation of Llewyn’s soul. They follow a shot of the cat looking expectantly at Llewyn with one of Llewyn looking expectantly at a music manager, the folk singer’s version of a caretaker.

It’s hard to say how the Coens coaxed the feline actor to produce such an expression (a mouse dangled just off camera?). More remarkable is the openness Isaac lends Llewyn’s look. At that moment, you see the kid who existed before the beard and the bitterness. The kid who just wanted to sing.


* * * * 

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

105 minutes

Rated R (language, including some sexual references)