The best, most refreshing thing about “Inside Llewyn Davis” — the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, about folk singers in 1960s New York — is how contained and narrowed the central narrative is. The Coens aren’t out to tell a grand epic about folk music in the 1960s, but instead, they offer us a brief (the movie takes place over the course of a single week) glimpse into the life of one struggling, up-and-coming folk singer.
It almost feels like the middle of a much bigger film. The picture begins and ends with the same scene: the protagonist, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), getting beaten up outside the Gaslight club in New York after performing. The brother filmmakers bring it full circle and keep the story tight.
The movie follows Davis — a slim, scrappy and rather testy lad with a thick beard and long, curly hair — as he goes from one friend’s couch to another, lugging a small bag with his clothing, his guitar in one hand and sometimes an orange tabby (a random, but nice, little detail) in the other.
He had a partner at one time, but now he’s solo and is trying to make it big. The problem is he’s not getting anywhere; he can’t catch a break. He doesn’t even have a winter coat to protect him from the unforgiving cold.
In a much more clichéd and sentimental musician movie, Davis could easily be labeled as the underdog hero — though within this film, it’s a little more difficult. He’s rude, selfish and doesn’t seem to appreciate the help he receives from others, such as Jean (Carey Mulligan), another singer with whom Davis had a relationship, or his sister Joy (Jeanine Serralles). He certainly can’t be called a hero and deserves all the bad luck he gets.
Even though he interacts with a multitude of other characters, he never establishes a meaningful relationship with any of them and wanders through the picture in a bubble of loneliness. He’s only interested in himself.
His only redeeming quality is that he has immense vocal talent, and when we see him perform, all of those unsympathetic qualities just seem to melt away — but only temporarily, of course. Afterward, he reverts back to his bitter, ungrateful self.
The Coens drop us right into the middle of Davis’ story as it’s going on. Most of the major action appears to have either already happened or will occur after the movie has ended. The story exists entirely on its own, and the audience is treated as a visitor, briefly passing through to witness a regular week in Davis’ rough life. We see the world entirely from his point of view: We meet the supporting characters as he encounters them, and we know as much about them as he does.
The story progresses in a natural, relaxed way. For example, we learn early on about Llewyn’s old singing partner Mike (not seen), but we don’t find out what happened to him until it’s casually brought up in conversation later on.
In another scene, when Davis hitches a ride with a handicapped, crotchety jazz musician Roland Turner (a fantastic John Goodman) and his young driver, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), we don’t learn where they’re going until Davis casually asks someone at a rest stop how much longer they have until they reach Chicago.
The Coens’ screenplay is extremely well crafted, and it doesn’t feel the need to explain everything nor tie up every loose end.
In addition, from a filmmaking perspective, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is close to perfect. It contains plenty of funny and clever dialogue; like Quentin Tarantino or Aaron Sorkin, the Coens have an immense gift for dialogue. The eloquent and gray-hued cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel emphasizes the cold loneliness that dominates the film. And the music within the movie (covers of existing folk songs sung by the actors) provides a warm, comforting blanket to cover an otherwise frigid and bleak movie.
The acting is great across the board. After playing various supporting characters in movies as diverse as “Drive” and “Robin Hood,” Isaac finally gets the opportunity to show he’s leading-man material. He gives a completely authentic performance, without ever going over the top. Without him, the movie wouldn’t have been nearly as great.
The supporting players like Mulligan, Goodman and Justin Timberlake (as another folk singer and boyfriend of Joy) all make great impressions in their small roles.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” won’t be for everyone: The main character isn’t exactly likable, and due to the Coen’s decision to only show us a slice of this struggling folk singer’s life, some audience members may get annoyed that it doesn’t have a formal beginning and resolution.
At the same time, the Coens provide us with a hugely entertaining slice and bring it to a satisfying closing, even though Davis’ story continues on after the screen goes to black.
To comment on this review, write to MPTimes@nwlink.com.