A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
We cannot imagine Llewyn Davis happy. The self-defeating Sisyphus of the new film written, directed, and edited by Joel and Ethan Coen is the first person the viewer lays eyes on in the movie. Bearded, his unkempt hair falling in his eyes, he picks out some steely, blue notes on a guitar as he sings "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," not to be confused with "Dang Me." "Wouldn't mind the hangin', except for layin' in the grave so long," he sings, with a good amount of sincerity. The time is 1961, the place is New York City, and the venue where Llewyn—portrayed with haunting conviction by Oscar Isaac, who, like everyone else in the cast, does his own singing and playing—is picking and not grinning is the Gaslight, a soon-to-be-legendary landmark in the "folk revival."
Llewyn, as talented as he is, does not look to be one of that revival's future success stories. Why? For one thing, he's the protagonist of a Coen brothers movie. For another, after he finishes his song, the place's glib, slick, runty owner Pappi, directs Llewyn outside to see a "friend" who's been asking for him. Outside Llewyn finds no friend, but instead a suited, fedora-sporting stranger who exchanges a few words with the singer before calmly kicking and punching the daylights out of him.
And then Llewyn wakes up. And there's just the most adorable orange cat staring him in the face.
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is the most satisfyingly diabolical cinematic structure that the Coens have ever contrived, and that's just one reason that I suspect it may be their best movie yet. How Llewyn inadvertently inherits, loses, then re-finds, and kind of adopts, the aforementioned cat is one of the more involved traps of the movie's plot, which may make the wary viewer, or the all-around anti-Coenite, suspect that this is some kind of exercise in auteurial sadism, a charge the brothers themselves laid themselves open to when they admitted that in concocting 2009's great "A Serious Man" they thoroughly enjoyed torturing their lead character.