The latest Coen Brothers venture is a snapshot view of the emerging folk scene in New York in the '60s, as seen through a week in the life of young musician Llewyn Davis (Isaac). We find the eponymous character down and out, shuttling back and forth between various friends' sofas, flicking through his ever-thinning contacts list for those people whose patience he has not already pushed to the limit. Lumbered with a flaky and ineffectual agent and a stack of LPs he can't shift, Davis has hit a wall. He once had some success as part of a double act – but since he's been forced to go solo (details of which hardly constitutes a twist, but I don't want to spoil it for you), he's not been able to catch a break.
Things only seem set to get worse when Jean (Mulligan), the incorrigibly rude girlfriend of his stalwart friend John (Timberlake), reveals that she's pregnant. This is troublesome, since it might be his (though god only knows how, given her abrasive attitude). With nothing but debt and ill will to leave behind, Davis cadges a lift to Chicago in the hope of getting some better luck there – cue an amusing and somewhat surreal segue with Goodman as an old jazz bore who can't condone this new folk nonsense, and Hedlund as his taciturn, enigmatic chauffeur. This digression, which doesn't much seem to drive the plot, is characteristic of the film's meandering, episodic style, which at times has more of the hallmark of a novel than a movie – but it is this the peculiar quirk of the Coen Brothers, and they carry it off.
Better luck is not found, and Davis returns to New York, to the friends he offended, to the venue he was trying to move on from. The cyclical form seals the gloomy mood that has pervaded the whole film, and though there is hope for the personal relationships that have fallen by wayside, we sense that professionally, Davis is a lost cause. It's a very sobering, very un-Hollywood, portrait of the artist. Singer-songwriters may wish to think twice before viewing.
The cast is perfectly picked. Oscar Issac is beautifully lugubrious as the hangdog Davis, who, truth be told, is very self absorbed and a bit of a dick. But Isaac brings a sympathy to the role to make him in equal parts exasperating and endearing. Mulligan is ridiculously enjoyable as the tight-lipped Jean, a stark departure from her more usual saccharine appearances; to which Timberlake's buoyant, puppy-eyed John is a perfect counterpoint. There seems to be a glum message overriding the piece, which points to the success of the chirpy and inane artists rather than those, like Llewyn, more given to navel-gazing: Timberlake's novel recasting of "Please Mr Kennedy" is a catchy silly brilliant aberration that is set to receive more airtime than his friend's tender, soulful melodies ever could.
The music in many ways is the star of this film: the Coen brothers indulge it, and with great success. Other directors perhaps would have shied from including so many full length songs onscreen – but the effect is to summon an engaging, authentic vision of the music scene at the time, which wraps us up further in Llewyn's story. We are given the chance to understand, despite his personal failings, what the music means to him – and consequently why that rare and elusive thing, success, is so cripplingly absorbing. In many ways it's an understated narrative; but it resonated – if you'll pardon the pun – long after the end credits rolled.
Admittedly, it's a little long at 105 minutes, and the plot at some points feels too tangential. But this is the Coen Brothers after all, and there are worse crimes to endure. It's beautifully shot and brilliantly acted – a triumphant return to form for the pair.
EXTRAS ★★ The making-of featurette Inside Inside Llewyn Davis (42:48).