By Sam Adams
[Grade: B+] Inside Llewyn Davis, the story of a humbled (if not humble) folk singer surfing couches in 1961 Greenwich Village, is one of Joel and Ethan Coen’s most perfect films. After two viewings, I’m hard-pressed to identify a significant flaw in the film, which is built around a rich and nuanced performance by Oscar Isaac. And yet I regard the film with appreciation rather than love or any other profound feeling. It’s not the first movie the Coen brothers have set amid the snows of winter, but it’s the first whose heart never thaws.
Llewyn (Isaac), modeled on the singer Dave Van Ronk, is a folkie who doesn’t much like other folks. He’s functionally homeless, toting a swollen duffel bag and a battered guitar case from one friend’s apartment to another, but he’s not much of a houseguest. Whatever charm reserves he once drew on have long since been depleted; his welcome’s all but worn out. Llewyn has plenty of reasons to be cheerless: For one, the female half of the sunny duo Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) is planning to abort what may be Llewyn’s child. But there’s another loss that hangs over the film. Its precise nature isn’t divulged till the midpoint, when Llewyn takes a miserable road trip to Chicago with a sullen jazzman played by John Goodman and his taciturn “valet” (Garrett Hedlund), but the way people speak of Llewyn’s former musical partner, Mike, it’s clear things didn’t end well.
Isaac channels most of his non-hostile emotions into Llewyn’s songs, which form the movie’s emotional backbone, but even on stage he’s turned inward, floating in a sea of black like a wayward asteroid. Although Dylan has yet to plug in his electric guitar and the coffeehouse scene is still lively, Llewyn’s already dead.