"Inside Llewyn Davis"

What's new pussycat: Musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is joined on his haphazard journey across New York by his friends' ginger cat. Photo: Supplied

Reviewer rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Reader rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars (18 votes)

Inside Llewyn Davis
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Rated MA. 105 minutes
Selected cinemas

Put the Coen brothers' films together and you get an index of American popular culture. They've tackled film noir, the Western, screwball comedy and the perils of life in Hollywood's studio system.

It's a rich brew strongly flavoured by their particular passions. Over the years, they have won the right to do pretty much as they please, thanks to their wit, craftsmanship and knack for operating within affordable budgets.

Inside Llewyn Davis is inspired by one of their more obscure fancies - a fascination with the New York folk music scene of the early 1960s. It takes place over a week in the winter of 1961. Bob Dylan is yet to appear but Joan Baez is already a name. So, too, are Harry Belafonte and Peter, Paul and Mary - although we don't come across them. If they were to show up, the film's fictional hero, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) would look on them with exquisite disdain. While he's a fine singer and guitar player, he's also a musical ascetic - a connoisseur of the folk song as an expression of unadulterated misery.

In the opening scene, he's performing at the Gaslight Cafe, a tiny club in Greenwich Village where he's been a regular for years, and the Coens let the song run on long enough for us to discern the distinctive mixture of stubbornness and sincerity that defines his style. The voice is pure, the song sad and Isaac, who played Jose Ramos-Horta in Robert Connolly's Balibo, has the face of a mediaeval friar. As he plays, he looks only at his guitar. One moment of eye contact with the audience and he'd feel as if he'd sold his soul. Worse, he looks as if he's wishing they weren't there. They're eavesdroppers on his romance with the music.

I confess that I didn't see this as an encouraging start to the movie. I'm not a fan of traditional folk music of the more downbeat kind and Davis's uncompromising dedication was ominous. But once he walks off-stage, things get interesting as we begin to become acquainted with his many flaws. Writers and filmmakers always take a risk when they design their stories around characters who are hard to like and Davis definitely fits that description. Not only is he self-absorbed, he's guilty of all the other sins that can be hyphenated with the word, self - from self-regard to self-destruction. But as you watch him lurch from one calamity to another, he disarms you by stealth.

There is, for instance, the saga of the cat. Davis has spent the night in the apartment of his kindly friends, the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), who are Columbia University academics. His career is going so badly that he's homeless and as he's leaving, the Gorfeins' ginger cat darts out with him. With the door locked, he can't put him back inside so the cat goes with him, becoming a lightning rod for many misadventures to come.

It's a picaresque tale. We follow Davis around as he imposes on friends, family and acquaintances, crashing on their sofas, begging them for money and reaping the effects of his previous crimes and misdemeanours. His first stop is the apartment of Jim and Jean, his best friends. They're also folk singers but they sit at the more commercial end of the spectrum and Davis can't stop himself from condescending to their clean-cut respectability from time to time.

The affable Jim - played with guileless charm by Justin Timberlake - never notices but Carey Mulligan's Jean has a more ferociously ambivalent attitude to him. They have slept together. Now she's pregnant and she doesn't know if the baby is his or Jim's. She's also bent on blaming Davis for her fury and frustration.

But the path of the narrative is circular rather than linear and it doesn't dwell on this subplot for long. Instead, it gains colour and momentum from Davis's increasingly fraught encounters with a variety of characters, all of them weird, all of them believable, thanks to the Coens' immersion in the place and period.

Along the way, there are occasional injections of wry humour to lighten the air of desperation. Davis's manager, Mel (Jerry Grayson), and his equally venerable secretary (Sylvia Kauders), might well have stepped straight out of Broadway Danny Rose and John Goodman contributes a terrifying, black comic turn as a drug-addled old jazz musician who takes Davis as a paying passenger on a nightmarish road trip to Chicago. Yet despite the broadness of its canvas, the film doesn't meander. There's an elegant shape to it - and some sad truths about the high price to be paid by those of rigid character who have no taste or talent for artistic compromise. Davis isn't easy company but there is something touchingly heroic in his dogged love for the music which shapes his life.

Twitter: @SandraHFilm