In shadowy close-up, alone on a smoky club stage in 1960s New York City, the titular Mr Davis (Oscar Isaac) sings a plaintive version of Dave Van Ronk’s ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’. Accompanied only by his guitar, his stunning voice soars over the melancholy lyrics, emotion etched into his face. It’s a haunting, intimate and powerful on-screen introduction, and effortlessly sets the scene for a remarkable film that is both amusing character study and profound treatise about unrealised ambition, the cruel nature of fate and the omnipresent possibility of failure.
With Llewyn’s astonishing talent established with such immediacy, the film pulls back to reveal the artist as man. And so we learn that, while he may have the voice of an angel, Llewyn is rather less pure of character. Something of a drinker and a womaniser, his recent dalliance with Jean (an excellent Carey Mulligan) – the wife of his close friend Jim (a surprising Justin Timberlake) – has resulted in an unplanned situation which requires immediate cash. Guitar forever in tow, Llewyn prowls Greenwich Village and beyond for gigs, crashing on various couches and courting the scorn of his more conventional sister Joy (Jeanine Serralles). Even as the odds stack higher against him, Llewyn is determined to follow his dream; a determination which proves both increasingly admirable and, as he squanders opportunity after opportunity, increasingly foolhardy.
In the title role, Isaac is outstanding. He gives Llewyn the duality that’s intrinsic to his story, having both a talent that’s easy to root for and an edgy personality that keeps things interesting. He also demonstrates a natural talent for comedy and, despite—and sometimes because of—Llewyn’s self-imposed struggles, there are plenty of light touches. Most of these laugh-out loud moments come courtesy of a scene-stealing cat which, after Llewyn accidentally lets out of his friend’s apartment, accompanies him on much of his journey. It’s only late in the film that we discover the cat’s name is Ulysses; a nod to Homer’s Odyssey, with which the film shares themes of journey, homecoming and loss.
This neat touch is just one of many brilliant moments in the Coen’s narrative which, like the lyrics of the folk songs it celebrates, is perfectly formed. The writing is snappy and the dialogue sharp, particularly between Llewyn and an increasingly aggravated Jean. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s understated camerawork captures the unforgiving city landscape, and music producer T-Bone Burnett serves up an evocative soundtrack that becomes a character in its own right. By the time the film reaches its climax, which effectively highlights that Llewyn is stuck in a rut of his own making, the film has well and truly cast its spell.
UK Release Date: January 24, 2014