The only living creature in Manhattan not furious at Llewyn Davis is a cat.
He has certainly exhausted the humans in his life. Llewyn heckles fellow musicians, repays hospitality with resentment and shuns successful artists as sellouts. He is homeless, and after the second half of his musical duo leapt from the George Washington Bridge, he is friendless too. While Llewyn crashes with a married couple, their nimble and orange cat escapes out of the building and into New York’s gray sloshy snow, and Llewyn stumbles after the last responsibility anyone should have ever given him.
“Inside Llewyn Davis,” the ninth film by Joel and EthanCoen in the last 13 years, is not so much a journey than a directionless unraveling of the central character. Oscar Isaac, whose last prominent role was a deadbeat gangster in Drive, plays the bushy-haired folk singer scraping by in New York’s Greenwich Village on the cusp of Bob Dylan’s arrival in the early1960s.
The Manhattan folk community is small and incestuous. Jean (Carey Mulligan), a soulful singer, battles Llewyn constantly, first over the cat’s unannounced stay and then over her pregnancy.
Llewyn is envious of the more prosperous Jim (Justin Timberlake), her new boyfriend. He chides their bourgeois success as square, but understands artistic purity doesn’t pay the bills, either. Record sales are nonexistent, and he runs out of sympathetic friends and empty couches.
With the cat cradled in his arms, Llewyn sets off to Chicago to reverse his fortunes on a chance meeting with a gruff recording company bigwig (F. Murray Abraham). A heroin-ravaged jazz musician (John Goodman) harasses him throughout his journey across the Midwest.
The Coen brothers are adept at leading their characters into gloomy inertia. The central figures in “The Big Lebowski” and “Barton Fink” are no better at the end then they were at the beginning. Jerry Lundegaard, played by William H. Macy in “Fargo,” and Josh Brolin’s Llewelyn Moss in “No Country For Old Men” make decisions that get progressively worse for everyone around them.
The same is true for Llewyn Davis, who fails to grasp that the music business is really a people business. He is rich in talent but short on empathy, and even a 1,600 mile surrealistic journey cannot shake him of his selfishness. An allusion to “The Odyssey” was deliberate; the cat’s name, Ulysses, reveals a connection to the epic. This is Homer’s story truncated at the moment Odysseus is shipwrecked and adrift, far from home, with resolution a distant shore.
The music is a central part of the film. Aspects of his character and some background details are lifted from real-life folk singer Dave Van Ronk, a champion of the New York folk scene in the 1960s. For the soundtrack, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons fills in as Llewyn’s partner, his voice filling out “Fare Thee Well,” the song that bookends the film inside the smoke-swirled Gaslight Cafe, a Manhattan folk music landmark.
In a few scenes, the film’s rich music is in danger of being overrun by the darkly cynical behavior of its characters, who look sublime and spiritual on the dark stage and mean-spirited in the light. Llewyn isn’t the only terrible person in the film — just the worst off because of it.
The film enters the Oscar race with a bit of momentum, having won the Grand Prix jury award at Cannes and best feature at the Gotham Awards this year. The field, already crowded with contenders “12 Years A Slave,” “Gravity” and others, will become very competitive with “American Hustle” and the Scorsese-helmed “The Wolf of Wall Street” opening later this month.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is yet another darkly brilliant film from the Coen brothers, as cryptic and beautifully shot as any other in their repertoire, and only flawed if you diverge from the Coens’ worldview. Those who want characters who end up learning some big lesson at the end will be disappointed by the subversion of convention we expect with these filmmakers, but loyal fans will feel rewarded.
There might not be any higher meaning to take away from this film. Llewyn is talented yet unperceptive — a man fated to crawl around the fringes of success because he can only reach people with his songs, but not his words.