The Coen Brothers might have delved into spiritual music before in O Brother, Where Art Thou, their myth-inspired take on the Depression-era American Deep South, but Inside Llewyn Davis is a far more focused piece of cinema, if never quite as colorful as its predecessor.
At the very least, it seems likely to make a star of Oscar Isaac, a Guatemalan-Cuban character actor, likely best known as Standard Gabriel, love rival of Ryan Gosling in Drive. Here he plays the eponymous Llewyn, a guitarist with an Italian complexion, a Welsh name and quite the soulful set of pipes. We follow him through the pre-Bob Dylan folk scene as he stumbles from one Greenwich Village couch to the next in his quest for the elusive record contract or at least enough cash to see him through the the winter of 1961. There's also a ginger tabby cat called Ulysses - go figure.
In tone, Inside Llewyn Davis is downbeat, melancholy even, its humor more leavening than in the broad, folksy O Brother. With its total focus on the journey of a single troubled protagonist, its most comparable to, perhaps, A Serious Man, though Llewyn is less of a nebbish than an asshole. He's slept with - and gotten pregnant - the prickly, pissed-off Jean (Drive co-star Carey Mulligan), wife of his friend Jim (an incredulously earnest, sweater-wearing Justin Timberlake). The cinematography, by first time Coen collaborator Bruno Delbonnel - Roger Deakins was apparently busy on Skyfall - is moody, washed-out, drawing out the hopeless quality of Llewyn's situation.
Garrett Hedlund appears as a incomprehensible beat poet-cum-chauffeur, a minor casting coup presumably inspired by his role as Dean Moriarty in last years' On the Road adap, and frequent Coen muse John Goodman his passenger, a garish, dyspeptic devil. Despite these charming engagements along the way, Inside Llewyn Davis main draw is in its soundtrack: the whole cast get in on the act, but it's Isaac's performance of Shaken by a Low Sound, the encore especially, that proves the revelation. The haunting anguish he draws out of every line - "Hang me, oh hang, I'll be dead and gone / It's not the hanging that I mind, it's the laying in the grave so long" - truly transfixes.
Inside Llewyn Davis may have the "man on a quest" element of O Brother, but, whereas Ulysses McGill and his ilk are bound for wealth, they hope, Llewyn's journey is of a less tangible kind. On his way he'll run across a young servicemen on leave from Germany (everyone keeps asking him if he knows Private Presley), take a beating, maybe two, visit his ailing father, and, if he gets lucky, he might, just might, get music manager Bud Grossman to listen to his record (F. Murray Abraham in a step up from Dead Man Down). A meditation on the worlds' misfits and their hard-won truths, Inside Llewyn Davis is certainly Coenesque but also something uniquely all its own.
Inside Llewyn Davis isn't due to hit UK screens till the end of January, but the soundtrack, at least, is due out to November 11th - I already have mine on pre-order. If you're willing to take my recommendation on faith, it could well be worth a purchase. In any case, give this a listen.