“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a transporting cinematic experience with a churl at its center, and how you feel about the movie may depend on how you feel about the churl. As you’ve probably heard by now, the film represents the Coen brothers’ affectionately jaundiced re-creation of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the late 1950s and early ’60s, viewed through the eyes of a fictional musician (see title) whose career has had trouble clearing the runway.
In essence, the film takes a prickly, self-absorbed hero and dumps a world of woe on his head, and it suggests that the Coens are repeating themselves. Llewyn Davis (played without a whisper of self-pity by Oscar Isaac) is cousin to Barton Fink and to Larry Gopnik of “A Serious Man” — the hubris remains the same; only the setting has changed. But where Barton seemed tormented by the youthful filmmakers and Larry by the cosmos itself, Llewyn’s his own worst enemy. If that makes him hard to take when he’s not singing, that’s the point.
Yes, the film’s a musical — what the cinema studies majors would call a diagetic musical, since all the songs are performed by musician characters in clubs, living rooms, and recording studios. “Inside Llewyn Davis” opens with a tight close-up of its hero in a dark and smoky boite, singing the traditional “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” to spectral guitar accompaniment. You immediately understand what Llewyn takes from folk music. Its mossy lineage — its very anonymity — makes it one of the few real things in a plastic modern world.
The movie unfolds in Manhattan in winter — the cold, slushy New York of the album cover for “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.” Dylan arose from the Village folk scene, of course, but aside from one perfectly aimed sidelong glance toward the end, he doesn’t figure in this telling. Anyway, Llewyn represents all the performers who weren’t Dylan — who slept on the same couches and sang the same songs but would have died before going electric. “Positively Fourth Street,” Bob’s kiss-off to the folkies, is a song about true believers like Llewyn. The Coens both cherish the character for his holier-than-thou purism and grin as it brings him to grief.
Shot in lovely desaturated colors by Bruno Delbonnel and graced with a score of chestnuts curated or newly recorded by T Bone Burnett — as redolent of its time period as the soundtrack of “O Brother, Where Art Thou” was to the Depression—the movie scuffles along with Llewyn from apartment to apartment, club to club, disappointment to disappointment. Uptown he has friends who double as patrons; he depends on the suppers they provide as much as he resents having to sing for them. Downtown he consorts with fellow musicians and lovers. Carey Mulligan plays one half of a folk duo called Jim and Jean — a sweetly unironic Justin Timberlake plays the other half — and her fury at Llewyn (and herself for sleeping with him) is a hint at how very good he is at burning bridges.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is loosely based on the life and travels of Dave Van Ronk, a gravel-voiced character who embodied and enabled the Village folk revival. A cursory read of his posthumous as-told-to memoirs “The Mayor of MacDougal Street” — highly recommended — proves that Van Ronk had a saving sense of humor that eludes his fictional counterpart. Llewyn caresses his folk songs and lays them gently in their graves; when he sings a lilting number called “The Death of Queen Jane” for a cold-eyed industry titan (F. Murray Abraham), the man drily responds, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Which only tells Llewyn he must be doing something right.
That scene comes shortly after the film’s highlight, a snowbound road trip to Chicago in which Llewyn shares a ride with a majestically dysfunctional jazz musician, a force of nature who’s hulking, hostile, and — since John Goodman is playing him — hilarious. There are moments of karmic mystery and comic beauty in this movie, including a placid marmalade cat that joins Llewyn’s journey for a few stops, and a wonderfully ridiculous topical song called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” sung in a recording studio by Llewyn and Timberlake’s Jim with deadpan obbligato by Adam Driver from “Girls.” There’s a harmonic visit from the Clancy Brothers (or actors wearing their white Aran sweaters) and a few hair-raising renditions of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” to tide you over the long cold winter. The soundtrack CD offers all of the beauties and none of the movie’s nagging doubts, if that’s your thing.
Still, the hero increasingly tries a moviegoer’s patience over the long haul — a measure of how finely unsentimental Isaac’s performance is — and it may take a while before you realize why the Coens are having so much fun throwing the book at him. As much as Llewyn romanticizes the “folk” in folk music, he sneers at actual people: his dullish married sister (Jeanine Serralles), his earnest academic friends uptown, a straight-arrow Army kid (Stark Sands) with dreams of making it on the folk circuit. The film’s a sympathetic yet brutally clear-eyed portrait of a generation’s mistake: that these songs might raise a man above the drab run of humanity rather than bring him closer to it. What’s inside Llewyn Davis? A hole that he fills — using art, heart, and a care beyond his own understanding — with music that’s never his.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.