Inside Llewyn Davis captures a changing era

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Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. Starring Oscar Isaac. Rated 14A.

Although Inside Llewyn Davis shares a number of narrative connections, and a roots-music fixation, with O Brother Where Art Thou? (with T Bone Burnett again producing the music), the Coen brothers film it most resembles is Barton Fink, in which a socialist-minded playwright is drafted to write Hollywood crap, and is trapped in a hotel not nice enough for The Shining.

Here, the titular hero is played by Oscar Isaac, a soulful-eyed Latino who portrayed nuanced villains in Robin Hood and Drive. A singer of obscure tunes in the pre-electric “folk scare” of the early 1960s, Llewyn crashes on couches in Greenwich Village and isn’t being seduced by anyone, although there is some trouble brewing with a colleague’s wife, played with anachronistically foul-mouthed verve by Carey Mulligan (who was married to Isaac’s Drive character).

Lightly based on gruff-voiced Village patriarch Dave Van Ronk, Llewyn is a haunted figure, mourning a recently departed singing partner—possibly in a riff on the filmmaking brothers’ own working arrangement. Despite his callous attitude towards commerce, he knows the times they are a-changing. So after losing a patron’s cat and making a sadly hilarious stab at a pop recording session, he heads to Chicago in the dead of winter, sans overcoat, to seek help from a big-shot club owner, played perfectly by F. Murray Abraham and based on the future manager of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary.

On the way, he hitches a ride with a drug-addicted jazz musician (Coen regular John Goodman) who derisively calls him “Cowboy Chords”. (Intriguingly, the hepcat’s driver is played by Garret Hedlund, resembling Neal Cassidy more than he did when playing Jack Kerouac’s rough muse in Walter Salles’s On the Road.)

This evocative, bleakly beautiful film ends with Llewyn glimpsing young Dylan, fresh from Minnesota and portending bigger shifts in the wind. In reality, it was Bobby who glommed on to Van Ronk for inspiration, but the Coens are more specifically interested in the wounded soul that gets left behind in art’s ceaseless march to greatness.

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