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" I didn’t lover her cuz it was right... I just loved her. "
— Robert Redford, Horse Whisperer

MRQE Top Critic

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An unlikable main character. A dated ’60s folk-music scene. Rooms full of cigarette smoke. Fringe life in New York City during a miserably cold winter.

Those are just some of the ingredients that help make Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Daviss the cinematic equivalent of stepping into a puddle of slush. Now, if you know and appreciate the strange, funny and chilled sensibilities found in most Coen brothers’ movies, you’ll understand that I mean that as a compliment.

Inside Llewyn Davis defies the odds and turns out to be a tribute to the Coens’ ability to tease out the humor in almost any situation, including one in which their main character suffers a series of misfortunes.

"It's the Gorfein's cat."
“It’s the Gorfein’s cat.”

I particularly loved the fact that the folkies we meet during the course of Inside Llewyn Davis are not burdened by anything as cliched as concern for their fellow inhabitants of the planet. They’re a sometimes unpleasant group of struggling careerists, most of them waiting — albeit unknowingly — to be eclipsed by an emerging Bob Dylan, the artist who ultimately would leave them all behind.

Put another way: If you’re looking for kumbaya fellowship, you’ll want to stay outside Llewyn Davis — far outside.

The Coens focus their acerbic attentions on Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a former seaman who’s trying to establish himself as a viable solo act in the New York folk music scene. Llewyn’s attempting to go it alone after his partner committed suicide. It’s not like Llewyn has been toppled from a lofty perch, though: He and his partner weren’t that big a deal anyway.

As played by Isaac, Llewyn is talented enough to be encouraged about his prospects. He has reason to see himself as an unrecognized artist. It’s not until late in the movie that he meets a Chicago folk impresario (F. Murray Abraham) who tells him that he’s got something — but not enough to be a headliner.

And that’s the rub: Llewyn’s story is a grimly funny take on a proverbial frustration: “close, but no cigar.”

So what does the title mean? What’s inside Llewyn Davis? The way I read the movie and Isaac’s masterfully dour performance, it’s this: Llewyn thinks he’s an artist. He thinks that he should be paid for his art. He refuses to perform like a trained seal, clapping his hands in hopes that someone throws him a fish. He’s got standards — even if no one else happens to give a damn about them.

As the story unfolds, Davis wanders around Manhattan looking for a place to crash. He imposes on Jean (Carey Mulligan), a former lover and singer who’s now living with Jim (Justin Timberlake). Jean and Jim sing together, but their music isn’t as soulful as Llewyn’s.

To make matters worse, Jean has become pregnant and doesn’t know if the baby is Llewyn’s or Jim’s. She’s furious, a woman of blistering scorn.

In Llewyn Davis, the Coens have made a movie without much forward progress. Nothing momentous happens. While staying at Jean’s apartment, Llewyn meets a strangely sincere soldier who also sings (Stark Sands) at the fabled Gaslight Cafe on weekends: He later tries to impose himself on a wannabe cowboy with a rumbling bass voice (Adam Driver).

Llewyn meets Driver’s Al Cody at a recording session for a song he totally disdains: Written by Jim, it’s called Please Mr. Kennedy, a ridiculous pop anthem that takes Kennedy to task for his interest in a reinvigorated space program.

When it comes to skewering a certain kind of upper Westside couple, the Coens show no mercy. Ethan Phillips plays a professor who’s always happy to welcome Llewyn into his home. His wife (Robin Bartlett) likes to sing with Llewyn and who has the aura of a worn but comfortable piece of furniture.

For this duo of West Siders, Llewyn’s the weird, artsy guy who might be asked to entertain other dinner guests, and you get the feeling that Llewyn disrepsects the couple’s tolerance, generosity and boundless capacity to endure his impositions.

To make matters worse, Llewyn loses the couple’s cat, a pet whose name clues us into the nature of the Coens’s enterprise. (See movie. Discover name.)

The movie supposedly was inspired by the story of real-life folk singer Dave Van Ronk, but its origins don’t really matter. You’ll get the drift as the Coens unfurl their deadpan take on the early ’60s.

Nowhere is this more evident than when Llewyn joins a jazz musician (John Goodman) and a stoic driver (Garrett Hedlund) on a car trip from New York to Chicago. Goodman sits in the back seat, alternately sleeping and tearing Llewyn apart for being something he deems as risible as a folksinger. It’s a small bit of genius characterization from one of the Coens’s regular performers. Goodman is funny, dissolute and sometimes dead-on.

The Coens open the movie with a scene that repeats at the end and which becomes even more mordant the second time around. What else should we expect? Inside Llewyn Davis is a bitter pill, but like many other bitter pills that the Coens have served us, it’s well worth swallowing.