In an alley behind a cafe in New York's Greenwich Village, an unidentified stranger knocks singer Llewyn Davis to his knees. Within the first 10 minutes of the Coen brothers' latest dark comedy, the filmmakers acquaint us with the curiously obscure, as violent fits are not usually associated with folk music.
The genesis of this animosity is left unanswered until the final moments of the film, leaving the lingering off-kilter question: Why would anyone beat up a folk singer? Thus, we have the perfect onset for this bleak and witty tale of a striving musician.
Here the Coen brothers pluck at the beatnik scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Helmed by long-time Coen collaborator T Bone Burnett, the tunes in this film - which are performed live - bare morbid undertones that correspond with the foremost concepts of the story: poverty, abortion, disappointment and death.
As the film opens, we are introduced to our guitar-strumming lead, Llewyn Davis, who is onstage in a smoke-filled dive. He is played to grungy, dark and handsome perfection by the stylish and calm Juilliard-trained Oscar Isaac. This marks the first time the Miami-bred Guatemalan-born 33-year-old has anchored a feature and he carries it off with infectious grace and grit. When he sings "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" in these initial moments, we're both seduced and heartbroken.
But for his character, a deep tune isn't enough to win over an audience. He is struggling to make it as a solo artist after his bandmate committed suicide, and his dismal hymns fail to propel him out of dire straits. Unable to afford his own place, he crashes on the couches of friends around town. Yet he's determined to keep his guitar close by and not sell out.
It seems we'll have no problem feeling sorry for Llewyn. Only the fact that he's an egotistical jackass makes it impossible to feel solidly empathetic toward him. His tenacity is admirable, though painstakingly impractical, which his married lover, Jean, played by Carey Mulligan, never fails to point out. The motley actress, who also played Isaac's love interest in "Drive," is deliciously abrasive in this role as Llewyn's best friend's wife, who just might be carrying Llewyn's baby.
Unlike her glamorous turn as Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann's adaptation of "The Great Gatsby" earlier this year, here Mulligan is pared down in tame turtlenecks and blunt brown bangs. This practical look is the perfect contrast to her sassy tongue. Jean is disgusted with Llewyn's casual nature and lack of desire for the stable suburban lifestyle, yet she's attracted to his rough edges. Their back-and-forth dustups speed up the film's otherwise drowsy pace and offer the most intriguing, and hilarious, exchanges.
Justin Timberlake, as bearded musician Jim, who is married to Jean, has good comedic timing. He's convincingly quirky and naive, especially when he attempts to record a loony track about President Kennedy with a straight face. And "Girls" star Adam Driver, as the cowboy hat-wearing folk singer Al Cody, is a riot when adding absurd sound effects to Jim's soon-to-be hit.
Luck never seems to be on Llewyn's side. If he gains a couple of bucks, he quickly loses them. He's unable to nab a proper coat and boots in the freezing New York winter. And his sister has tossed the papers needed to return to the seaman's union, his backup plan. Isaac's masters every intricate expression, but disappointment is his grand mask.
When Llewyn hitches a ride to Chicago for a last-chance meeting with stoic music manager Bud Grossman (portrayed by the ever-magnetic F. Murray Abraham) he is told his music isn't sellable. His traveling companions, bizarre Southern jazz musician Roland Turner, played with raw perfection by Coen regular John Goodman and the aloof leather coat-wearing stud Johnny Five (a quiet, captivating Garrett Hedlund), turn out to be a headache when one almost overdoses on drugs and another is arrested.
Indeed, the film is a heavy downer and its consistent gray-hue enhances the bleakness. But the Coen brothers never fail to weave in bits of saucy irony, giving way for essential comical moments that bring everything full-circle.
Now back to that alley beat-down: Despite what Llewyn goes through, it becomes clear he deserved it.
"Inside Llewyn Davis," from CBS Films, is rated R for language including some sexual references. Running time: 105 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.