As much as any directors working today, the brothers Coen, Ethan and Joel, are unmistakable auteurs, filmmakers who place their own distinctive stamp on everything they do.
But while the bleak, funny, exquisitely made "Inside Llewyn Davis" echoes familiar themes and narrative journeys, it also goes its own way and becomes a singular experience, one of their best films.
Like the Coens' earlier "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," "Inside" sends a protagonist with links to Homer's Odyssey (here it's an ornery cat named Ulysses) on a drawn-out and difficult journey: Not for nothing is the film's production company called Long Strange Trip LLC.
Both films have the wizardly T Bone Burnett as music producer, but because "Inside" is a celebration of folk singers in general and the bad-luck Llewyn Davis (beautifully played by Oscar Isaac) in particular, the songs here and the specific time period they come out of move from the soundtrack to center stage.
That would be the small and self-contained folk singing universe of New York's 1961 Greenwich Village, just before Bob Dylan's arrival turned everything upside down. As created by Jess Gonchor, the Coens' regular production designer, and shot by Bruno Delbonnel, this careful re-creation of a specific world is spectacularly right.
The same goes true for the Coens' admiring portrait of the psychology of this small but stubborn singing subculture, true believers in the purity of folk music who couldn't guess that they were, to borrow Marshall McLuhan's phrase, the opening wedge of the trial balloon. "We grew up with Bob Dylan, all those records were big deals," Ethan Coen explained at Cannes, where "Inside" won the Grand Jury Prize. "So what that came out of is a big deal for us as well."
It's a mark of how serious they are about this music and this era that the Coens mandated that "Inside's" songs are not heard in snatches on the soundtrack but sung out in their entirety on camera. Ballads thus beautifully recorded include folk music classics such as "Five Hundred Miles," "The Last Thing On My Mind" and "Green, Green Rocky Road" as well as less familiar but equally memorable tunes like "The Shoals of Herring" and "The Death of Queen Jane."
All this singing placed a special burden on the sweet-voiced cast, which includes Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake, but especially on Juilliard-trained Isaac, who had to be both believable as a musician and a good enough actor to appear in every scene, a task so daunting the Coens despaired of finding anyone who could play the part until he walked in the door.
Placing its aesthetic cards on the table immediately, "Inside" opens with Davis, alone at the microphone in the Village's Gaslight Club, singing a full three-minute version of "I've Been All Around This World," a mournful tune often known by its chorus of "Hang me, oh hang me, I'll be dead and gone." It's a lyric that hints at the world of trouble ahead for this unaware young man. As Joel Coen admitted in Cannes, being one of the brothers' protagonists is "not for the weak of heart."
In addition to everything else, "Inside Llewyn Davis" is very much a roman à clef about those early folk years, with many of its characters inspired by real people the Coens reconstitute after viewing them through their very particular lens.
Ramblin' Jack Elliott becomes Al Cody (Adam Driver), the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem become unnamed Irish singers, complete with the requisite white Aran sweaters. And Davis himself is the Coens' version of Dave Van Ronk — his posthumous memoir, "The Mayor of MacDougal Street," was a key source — even though the men's physical presence and singing styles couldn't be more disparate.
After his turn at the microphone, Davis has an unsettling encounter in the alley behind the club, a mysterious event not fully explained until the film's conclusion. Next we see him waking up on a bright New York morning, having crashed, as is his wont, on the Upper West Side couch of his friends the Gorfeins, Columbia University faculty with a weakness for the impecunious.
Davis, we soon understand, is going through a rough patch. He lost his singing partner to suicide and is trying to make it as a single artist, which prompts a fruitless visit to Mel Novikoff (named for a celebrated San Francisco exhibitor but modeled on Folkways Records' Moe Asch and nicely played by Jerry Grayson).
In addition to being in dire straits, Davis has the kind of acerbic personality that irritates everyone, his friends most of all. Fellow folk artist Jean (a deft Mulligan), married to singing partner Jim (Timberlake), is particularly furious at him, but, as we learn, she has her reasons.
With things looking bleak, Davis, almost on a whim, takes the opportunity to share gas money on a drive to Chicago with friends of friends. His companions on what turns into a further descent into hell are Roland Turner, a jazz musician who loathes folk music (John Goodman at his corrosive best) and laconic hipster actor Johnny Five (a spot-on Garrett Hedlund).
Though Davis clearly has the karma of someone who couldn't catch a break with both hands, "Inside" also reveals him to be a genuine artist willing to stoically suffer the cards dealt him if that's necessary to preserve his creative integrity. It's the film's empathy with him, its sympathy with the plight of artists in general, that makes "Inside" an unexpectedly emotional piece.
Llewyn Davis is a complex, contradictory character who sometimes does the worst things for the best reasons and comes alive most fully, most appealingly, only when he sings. It's a gift no one can take away from him, not even himself.
'Inside Llewyn Davis'
MPAA rating: R for language, including some sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles