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Joel and Ethan Coen don't exactly make it easy to get inside Llewyn Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis--at least, not through the usual channels of observing a character to understand why he does what he does. The fictional folksinger at the center of the Coens' latest tale is a lonesome Joe, trying to make it as a musician and rambling the streets of New York City's Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961. Played by a handsomely bearded Oscar Isaac, with soulful eyes and a doleful mouth, Davis just doesn't have much luck. The Village folk scene is burgeoning but hasn't yet crossed over to wider popularity. Bob Dylan has yet to change the world; there's no money to be made in Llewyn's sad, age-old songs of loss and hardship.
The Coens, who grew up in suburban Minnesota listening to Pete Seeger, use random details from the life of actual '60s folksinger Dave Van Ronk to create the contours of their restless protagonist. But make no mistake: Llewyn Davis is first and foremost a classic Coen creation, sharing a distinct strand of DNA with the Job-like, beaten-down heroes of previous movies such as A Serious Man and Barton Fink. Ask Joel Coen about the brothers' attraction to the type and his explanation is succinct: "What's interesting to us are the people you know that are very good at what they do but aren't necessarily successful."
Llewyn is very good at what he does. Strumming in a smoky basement coffeehouse and spinning minor-key ballads in a singing voice as unadorned as a Shaker coat peg, he conveys the weariness of a man of constant sorrow. Executive music producer T Bone Burnett, who worked with the actor to hone the deceptively simple, vibrato-free style, calls it the voice of the common man singing. But after Llewyn has packed up his guitar for the day and scrounged another night's sleep on the couch of one forbearing friend or another, he proves to be something of a screwup, simultaneously passive and thin-skinned, broody and opaque, and maddeningly impervious to the needs and feelings of others. It's enough to make someone want to punch him--which someone does, in a back alley behind the legendary Gaslight Café.
And slowly, the truth dawns: the only way to really get inside Llewyn Davis in Inside Llewyn Davis is to listen. The look of the movie--shot on film the old-fashioned way, then digitally manipulated--is an uncanny evocation of the cover photo on the 1963 LP The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. But at times the purest means of entry is with eyes closed. Because for the first time in their long arc of projects in which music has figured prominently--including the period jazz in Miller's Crossing, the gospel music in The Ladykillers and the glorious collection of blues and bluegrass that lifted the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack (also produced by Burnett) to Grammy-winning, eight-times-platinum status--the music is the story here and the fullest, most guileless expression of the Coens' emotional investment in their man. Despite everything ambivalent about the character, there is a vulnerability and innocence in the songs he sings that tell a deeper story of a person, place and time on the verge of change. Wasn't that a time!