Folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is having a pretty bad week, probably because he's in a movie written by Joel and Ethan Coen. He got beat up in an alley by a stranger, and he recently lost his musical partner. Some of his friends are making a living with music, but his solo record isn't selling. He's sleeping on people's couches. It's cold out, but he doesn't have a coat. He lost a friend's cat. His sister isn't going to loan him any money. Oh, and he might have impregnated his best friend's wife.
Clearly the only thing to do is set off for Chicago to see Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a producer who has a copy of his record and is his last real shot at making his passion pay the rent. So he commences hitchhiking and ends up in a car with a washed-up junkie jazz musician (John Goodman) and his brooding beat poet valet (Garrett Hedlund).
Things are not looking up for Llewyn.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a darkly funny film that recreates the texture of the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961, and for those of us who love the Coens' meandering storytelling style, it's a masterpiece. It features some truly outstanding performances, both musical and thespian—particularly from Isaac, who performed the music live, as well as Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan, who play Llewyn's sweet-natured best friend Jim and his vitriolic wife Jean (who calls him "King Midas's idiot brother," alongside other choice terms). The Coens collaborated closely with T Bone Burnett, the music producer with whom they worked on O Brother, Where Art Thou (the film's soundtrack also features Marcus Mumford and Punch Brothers). And it looks good, too, thanks to cinematographer Bruno Delbonnell, whose other work includes the visually sumptuous Amelie.
It's also rich with narrative and symbolic layers and allusions, so many that I can't write about all of them because this essay would be at least three thousand words longer than it is. (Believe me, it was hard to refrain.) But like pretty much every movie the brothers have made, Inside Llewyn Davis improves if you put on some moviegoing spectacles and watch it with care (and it rewards a re-watch, too).
This is important to remember: the Coens are modern-day myth-weavers, contemporary legend-builders. Their characters and plots are often drawn from archetypes that already exist in our collective imagination. No matter what their movies are about—incompetent CIA agents, cheating wives, baby thieves, Midwestern cops—there's also invariably some kind of Big Story underneath, too, which is why a number of their movies are populated by zany larger-than-life characters who function as types as much as people.
I'm no classics scholar, but as a rule of thumb, I think about myths, legends, fables, and folktales as the stories a group of people tells each other about themselves in order to understand who they are. Scholars argue over whether and to what degree these stories originate in allegories or actual events, but as someone recently said to me, they are in a sense "more true" than the facts: they shape our imaginations about our identities as individuals, families, and communities. A creation story, for instance, tells a society where it came from, where it's headed, and what it can expect to encounter along the way. And so even if the events didn't "happen" exactly the way the story has it, it's still very true.