Inside Llewyn Davis is an intimate, well-executed, and honest slice of life. It features a humanistic, heartfelt performance by Oscar Isaac as the titular folk singer, arresting cinematography, and a sharp, tight-fisted script by the Coen brothers, who also directed.
It's Greenwich Village in the early sixties, when folk music was either coming into its own or ready to be usurped by a more mainstream genre. Llewyn has no home, drifting from gig to gig and crashing on couch after couch as a matter of design; is vagrancy is his life's plan. Llewyn is at turns a noble soul who exists for the sake of making the music he wants to make and a resentful twerp who mooches off friends just to sustain his unsustainable lifestyle.
The movie is only somewhat linear, with closing scenes mirroring opening scenes, and it is told entirely from Llewyn's point of view. The Coen brothers masterfully show us not only Llewyn's perspective but also an outside perspective; this allows us to feel both empathy and loathing toward him.
Llewyn is nothing if not complex. The movie does a terrific job of avoiding the usual cliches, such as a down-on-his-luck musician catching a lucky break, or a bitter man having a quick change of heart. It's not that Llewyn is constantly sneering at everyone, holding his poverty up as both a shield and a trophy, it's that he is so multilayered that when he does a kind act or offers some praise or thanks, we don't feel that his doing so is in any way out of character. Llewyn is a self-tortured soul, but unlike caricatures of wandering folkies, he is at his center a realist, albeit a prideful one.
During his travels and travails, Llewyn encounters people ranging from the genuine (his singing friends Jim and Jean, played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) to the absurd (a rotund, blustery John Goodman). Oh, and a cat that travels with Llewyn - at least until he can get him or her back to the owner. The encounters with the genuine folks feel just as normal as if you or I encountered them; those with the more absurd of the lot feel perfectly surreal, and when they do end one almost wonders if we've all imagined the encounters through Llewyn himself.
The music is beautiful and moving. Isaac himself performs Llewyn's songs, with a sweet, vulnerable voice that offers a touch of soul to Llewyn's otherwise-bleak surroundings. When Llewyn is really on, you can feel his pain leap right off the screen into your brain; when he appears to be going through the motions and not singing from his heart, you can feel the lack of depth that his intended audience also feels. Isaac is just flat-out terrific.
Ultimately, it is Isaac and the music that push this film into the territory of great cinema. The story itself is stark, moody, unyielding - just like a New York City winter, really. And the movie, like Llewyn's own life, appears to have no point - except to illustrate just how pointless Llewyn is making his life, through his stubborn marriage to his craft and a desire to stay uprooted