"Inside Llewyn Davis" begins with the chattering of a crowd, the tuning of a guitar, a close-up on a microphone and an emotional rendition of the folk standard "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" by star Oscar Isaac.
Unfolding in the one-time MacDougal Street institution Gaslight Café in 1961, it's an auspicious beginning to the latest masterwork from Joel and Ethan Coen, lodging a lump in your throat that simply won't leave for the next 104 minutes. In a different movie from different filmmakers, it'd kick off a misty-eyed tribute to the Greenwich Village folk scene.
But look at what Llewyn Davis is singing: "Hang me, oh hang me. I'll be dead and gone. I wouldn't mind the hanging. It's just the laying in the bed so long. Poor boy, I've been all around this world."
Isaac performs with such intense feeling that a lifetime of hurt, pain and frustration is crystallized in just a few short minutes.
The Coens have built an accomplished career out of exploring the absurdities of the human condition in wildly different settings and genres, all the while highlighting the universe's inherent unfairness. Their new movie is centered on tangible feelings of disappointment and inadequacy, epitomized by Llewyn, a troubadour of immense talent struggling to build a solo career in a world that values commercialism and image-sculpting over authenticity.
Shot under cloudy skies on cold days, against a grey and de-saturated backdrop that the Coens have said was inspired by the cover of "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," the movie finds Davis on an odyssey across an unforgiving landscape filled with rejection and anger, laced with the wreckage of a painful past.
The Coens treat the character with their classic deadpan sensibility; poor Llewyn simply can't catch a break, both in terms of the individuals he interacts with and in the ways he copes with existential difficulties. A lot of people spend a lot of time upset with this uncompromising artist, who sees himself as an heir to the classic folk tradition while his contemporaries on the emerging revival scene are little more than cheap sell-outs.
That notion informs Llewyn's conduct in every facet of his life, leaving him lonely, bitter and sad. The Coens and cinematographer Bruno Debonnel enhance his isolation with images that seem to have been extracted from an Edward Hopper painting, showing Llewyn overwhelmed by the urban expanse. But this isn't a case of creators tormenting their creation.
In fact, the Coens have great empathy for this broken soul, for the burden of maintaining artistic freedom in a world that stands against it and the torment of dreams deferred.
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin