The first thing we hear in Inside Llewyn Davis is the title character singing Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, but the truth is, he does a very good job of hanging himself.
Joel and Ethan Coen's latest is about a glum singer named Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) who subsists on the fringe of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. He is talented, but he has no money or home — the movie has five scenes of him waking up in unfamiliar beds — and he's such a jerk that if it weren't for the beauty of his voice, it's likely no one would pay any attention to him.
There's less plot in Llewyn than in most three-minute folk songs. Llewyn bums around New York's Village, fights with a shrill ex (Carey Mulligan), bums a few gigs from a sunny pal (Justin Timberlake), alienates his sister and embarks on an ill-fated road trip to Chicago. That's about it.
The Coens have great fun re-creating the Greenwich Village scene, and the distinctive LP covers and poster art of the era. But rather than sending Llewyn on a journey that will teach him something about life (or at least give him the material for a song about picking cotton or riding the rails), the Coens designed the modest Llewyn to showcase the many ways the title character is capable of annoying others.
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It's a shaggy-dog tale or, more accurately, a shaggy-cat tale, since Llewyn misplaces a friend's kitty early in the film and keeps finding and losing look-alikes. Despite the burnished setting in a place that actually existed, Inside Llewyn Davis has a hellishly surreal quality that recalls the Coens' Barton Fink (1991), which also featured an ominous, narrow hallway. As often as we see Llewyn in the groggy moments after waking up, we're not always sure if what we're watching is his reality or his nightmares.
Maybe that's the point of the film and of Isaac's soulful, oddly likable performance: Being good isn't enough to get an artist noticed, and at some point, he might have no choice but to give up this waking nightmare.
The Coens begin and end the movie with versions of the same scene, giving Inside Llewyn Davis a circular quality that hints at the title character's endless loop of bad luck. Like a folk song, he exists in a sort of timeless reality that seems unlikely to change or, as the negative-thinking Llewyn puts it, "If it was never new and it never gets old, it's a folk song."
'Inside Llewyn Davis'
R for language including some sexual references. CBS Films. 1:44. Hamburg, Kentucky.