Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen have concocted a droll, darkly sardonic comedy, pivoting on the sweet desperation of one week in the life of a folksinger in New York's Greenwich Village in 1961.
Ever since he left the Merchant Marines, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) has been trying to earn a living as a musician, but it just isn't working out for him. Homeless, he often sleeps on a sofa at the Garfeins, bohemian academics (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett) who live near Columbia University. One day, when leaving their apartment, their cat escapes, igniting a series of escapades, leading Llewyn back to MacDougall Street, where he also crashes with Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake) Berkey, but there are alienating complications inherent in that relationship. So, toting his guitar, Llewyn takes off on an ill-fated road trip to Chicago with two strangers (Garrett Hedlund, John Goodman) to audition for a music manager (F. Murray Abraham). As is often the case, it's the journey that's important, not the destination.
The Coen brothers ("True Grit," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?") create an irritable, eccentric central character whose choices are relentlessly self-defeating, resulting in unrelenting misery.
Half-Guatemalan/half-Cuban, Miami-raised Isaac is superb as the surly, self-sabotaging misanthropist, revealing a silky voice as he sings soulful songs in the Gaslight Cafe, hoping -- in vain -- for commercial success, as Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography captures winter's frigidity.
The terrific Americana soundtrack, recorded live and produced by T-Bone Burnett, includes "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," "Fare Thee Well," "500 Miles," "The Death of Queen Jane" and an amusing novelty ditty, "Please Mr. Kennedy" -- with nods to the Clancy Brothers, Brooklyn's Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is an enthralling, enlightening 8, evoking Nobel Prize-winning novelist William Faulkner's words: "I believe man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among the creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance."