Don’t let the warm spotlight, the torn-from-the-heart musical performance and the applause fool you: Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, in a mercurial turn) is plummeting. This Greenwich Village gig may be his last. Soon, we’ll become familiar with the bearded dreamer’s itinerant lifestyle as he couch-crashes through the chilly winter of 1961. Llewyn lugs around a box of unsold records; his bandmate’s suicide haunts him. His best friend’s furious wife, Jean (Carey Mulligan), has extremely bad news related to their recent fling. Plus, Llewyn’s let the cat run out.
As ever, Joel and Ethan Coen share an anthropologist’s eye for details, but Inside Llewyn Davis goes beyond its deceptively sweatered and chummy folk scene into a darker reality—of slush-filled shoes and broken hopes, with only coins for a cup of coffee. Somehow, you know this won’t be a film about landing a big record deal. The bleakness (well supported by Bruno Delbonnel’s bruised cinematography) feels invigorating for the Coens: While many of their successes, from Barton Fink through A Serious Man, bump up against existential dread, they’ve never made do with so little comic relief.
Is that a good thing? Undoubtedly, especially if you’ve ever cringed at the siblings’ precious perfectionism with images and dialogue, and wanted them to get serious for a change. There are laughs, but they come from a weird place: Coens mainstay John Goodman shows up as a menacing junkie, and Girls’ Adam Driver, playing some kind of Jewish cowboy, steals a novelty number called “Please Mr. Kennedy.”
But mainly, it’s the film’s folk music that roots in the heart like a faraway lure. The Coens have made zanier road movies, but sometimes, that road leads to an unconvinced club promoter, and you know it’s time to call it quits.
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