It's a clichÃ© to say that a setting is like a character in a movie, but in the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis," the setting the folk-music scene in New York's Greenwich Village, circa 1961 is the pivotal character.
That scene, at venues like the Gaslight Cafe (a real-live place), was where everybody with a guitar or a voice and a dream of a recording deal landed in 1961 most famously a guy from Minnesota who called himself Bob Dylan, who has not yet arrived when the movie begins.
Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is no Bob Dylan, though it's not for want of trying. Onstage, his renditions of traditional folk songs are as pure and as deep as an alpine lake. His personal life, however, is a muddy whirlpool, starting with the opening scene in which someone beats him up in an alley outside the Gaslight.
When the film starts, it feels as if we're viewing Davis' downward spiral already in progress. His first album isn't selling, and his manager (Jerry Greyson, who died in March) wants him to record something more commercial. He refuses to compromise his art, even if it means he's sleeping on couches of his last remaining fans (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett) whose cat he accidentally lets loose.
Then there are his best buddy, Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake), whom Davis envies because he turned a novelty song into a hit, and Jim's wife and singing partner, Jean (Carey Mulligan). Jean despises Davis for being a jerk in general and for getting her pregnant.
Joel and Ethan Coen who again share writing, directing and editing duties send Davis through an odyssey of self-delusion and self-discovery. Desperate for money, Davis takes an accompanying gig on Jim's pop song, but short-sightedly takes the cash instead of a chance at royalties. He hitches a ride to Chicago with a junkie bluesman (John Goodman) and his silent driver (Garrett Hedlund, seemingly reprising his Kerouac-esque role from "On the Road"), with the hope of impressing a music producer (F. Murray Abraham). And then there's that cat, to whom Davis now feels obligated.
Through it all, the Coens and their music collaborator T Bone Burnett (who produced the Grammy-winning "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack) capture the spirit of the folk-music explosion, with tracks brimming with beautiful harmonies and soulful solo performances. (Listen closely and you can hear Mulligan's husband, Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons, in the background.)
Amid a sea of great supporting players, Isaac is a marvel as Llewyn Davis. He never softens his character's bad behavior, but through his eyes and especially through his music he conveys the yearning of an artist trying to express himself without compromise.
Onstage, though, Isaac/Davis truly shines; his plaintive renditions of classic songs fill the Gaslight with the musician's deep well of emotions. At one point, between songs, Davis comments that "if it was never new, and it never gets old, then it's a folk song." That's how "Inside Llewyn Davis" feels both fresh and familiar, offering new insights for its lived-in setting.
'Inside Llewyn Davis'
The Coen brothers capture the music and the emotion of the '60s folk-music scene, through the tumultuous days of one luckless musician.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 20.
Rating • R for language including some sexual references
Running time • 105 minutes.