KUSA - Llewyn Davis exudes sensitivity when he plays the guitar and sings lilting folk songs in a Greenwich Village coffeehouse in 1961. But without his instrument he's pretty much a jerk in the darkly mesmerizing film that bears his name.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a puzzling title since the film never fully conveys just who he is. As played by Oscar Isaac, he's snidely funny, world-weary and deeply sad. Though his story is enigmatic, the film itself is brilliantly acted, gorgeously shot and altogether captivating.
The story opens with Davis performing Hang Me, Oh Hang Me with a melancholy soulfulness. Then he walks out into an alley behind the club and gets viciously pummeled. It's not until much later that we find out why.
When the shadowy assailant taunts him, Llewyn fires back verbally. But he takes his licks without retaliating. That scene speaks volumes.
A struggling folk singer with a frequent scowl, Davis often defeats himself before others can reject him. Just below the surface lurks a defiant, but impotent, rage. The odds are clearly against him during a chilly New York City winter. He has no place to live, no winter coat and sparse gigs.
As one would expect from Joel and Ethan Coen, the brilliant co-directors of such films as Fargo and No Country for Old Men, the story does not adhere to a conventional arc.
From that alley scene, there's a fade-out to a tabby cat padding down the hallway of a well-appointed apartment. The beauty of this film is that we never know what to expect, and any expectations tend to be subverted. The downside is that Davis never truly engages our sympathy.
Careerwise, he is his own worst enemy. And in his personal relationships, things are even worse. He alienates almost every friend with his snide, sardonic persona, particularly former girlfriends such as Jean (Carey Mulligan).
Isaac is excellent, superbly conveying Davis' profound sorrow as well as his snarky humor and manipulative tendencies. Mulligan is also terrific as his vitriolic but sweet-singing ex. The rest of the ensemble cast is pitch-perfect, except John Goodman, who's hard to buy as a strung-out heroin addict.
The cinematography is gorgeous, and the emphasis on smoky grey colors ideally suits the bleak story.
When an uptown folk music enthusiast tells Davis, "I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul," Davis just stares, faintly glaring.
Whether music actually brings him joy is debatable.
It is, however, something worth pondering for the audience.
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