At one point in Inside Llewyn Davis, its sour, folk-singing namesake is put in a situation surely familiar to most performers. Sitting around the table at a dinner party, his hosts, the Gorfeins, suggest that the rest of their guests simply must hear him play a song. A guitar is retrieved from the back bedroom as Llewyn protests, politely only at first, that this is what he does for a living. But Mrs. Gorfein insists.
"I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul," she says.
It's hard to say whether this is true for Llewyn Davis. Much plainer is the central reality of the Coen Brothers' cold-weather character study, that only in the confines of a crashed uptown dinner party could he get away with calling folk music anything close to a livelihood. Over the course of a largely plotless week, we watch him chase small paydays and drift couch-to-couch through early '60s Greenwich Village, antagonized by his own inability to express warmth or gratitude. The rest of his time is spent interacting with the slowly swelling folk-music scene, which he regards with little more pleasure than his existential grind. From his table at the Gaslight club, the amateurs are garbage and the professionals—as he directly accuses his friend and sometime lover, Jean (Carey Mulligan)—are too careerist. Whether rooted in jealousy or just defaulting contempt, there's no real sign of what Llewyn Davis actually likes about folk music.
But when he picks up the guitar to sing, the music is beautiful and true. Cast for his musical chops as much as his acting—both on considerable display—Oscar Isaac commands sympathy for the inscrutable, often unlikable Llewyn with every note. (Drawn largely from the music of Davis inspiration Dave Van Ronk, the soundtrack is curated to perfection by regular Coen collaborator T-Bone Burnett and yip-folk figurehead Marcus Mumford; you'll probably give or receive at least one copy this holiday season.) And that's key, because beneath its acidic look at the surrounding business, Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about music and how it affects us.
In impeccably cut close-ups, we see characters' faces as the music they hear causes them to reflect on their lives, or appreciate a friend's art, or lust after the singer. (Sometimes it's irritation, whether that of Llewyn or someone in his company, but that's arguably as honest as reaction to music gets.) We watch musicians perform—as they get lost in their music, put on a confident show, or wonder self-consciously how their song is being received. At one point, Jean is beaming through a chorus when Llewyn catches her eye from the audience, and her face clouds over. The frown speaks to the story, but there are plenty of other scenes of them grumping at each other. The smile is the rarity.
In expressing his soul, though, joy mostly eludes Llewyn Davis. There is one curious exception, when Jean's beau, Jim (Justin Timberlake), throws him a bone by inviting him to a recording session for a novelty single. The three musicians involved come at it differently: Jim has written a goofy song and delights in bringing it to life as a potential stepping stone to greater success; Al Cody (Adam Driver) gives an off-putting, scene-stealing performance that may represent a new compromise in his own version of Llewyn Davis' hard-luck narrative; Llewyn shows up, bums a guitar, and insults the song to Jim's face. But as they play together, Llewyn's face and manner brighten. This careerist moment, playing a trivial song, is by some margin the happiest we see him.
That it's also the only time we see him make music with others speaks mostly to emotional territory best left unspoiled, but suffice it to say that the wonder of collaboration isn't lost on the Coens, driven after three decades of arch genre work to finally make the sort of film in which emotion is actually a factor. 2009's masterful A Serious Man offered inklings of a quieter, more introspective path for the brothers, but Inside Llewyn Davis still constitutes a creative leap. Peppered as it is with Coen-esque faces and transcendent cadence, their Greenwich Village is something much closer to the real world than they've come before, and their interest in mundane human emotion is tentative but unmistakable, and viciously unsentimental. It's par for the Coen course that Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the year's best films—the surprise is that it's an affecting one.