From there, this film by the Coen brothers and their musical partner T Bone Burnett adopts the odyssey narrative they employed in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, though here the tone is more Joycean than Homeric. Waking up on what seems like the next morning in the apartment of a professor friend, a disoriented Llewyn pulls himself together and sets off on the long subway ride back to the Village—but not before accidentally letting out the pet cat. For the remainder of the film, this uncooperative animal seems to be leading Llewyn from one strange adventure to the next, like a beatnik Leopold Bloom on the trail of a feline Stephen Dedalus.
As they did with the 1940s Hollywood setting of Barton Fink, the Coens take a real time and place and freely make it their own, drawing on actual persons and events for inspiration, but binding themselves only to their own bountiful imaginations. Where Clifford Odets provided the inspiration for Fink, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is modeled on the late Dave Van Ronk, a mainstay of the 60s New York folk revival whose vaunted reputation among musicians never translated into commercial success.
But for all of Llewyn’s struggles, there is also abundant joy—the joy of the music itself, exquisitely arranged by Burnett and sung live on set by the actors themselves. The many sounds of the early 1960s folk music revival float on the air like a strange, intoxicating perfume as the Coens and Burnett lead us through folk music nightclubs, a bleak New York winter and one man’s fraught efforts to reconcile his life and his art.
Adapted from an article originally published in Variety. Reprinted with permission of the author.