In an alley behind a cafe in New York's Greenwich Village, an unidentified stranger knocks singer Llewyn Davis to his knees.
Within the first 10 minutes of the Coen brothers' latest dark comedy, the filmmakers acquaint us with the curiously obscure, as violent fits are not usually associated with folk music.
The genesis of this animosity is left unanswered until the final moments of the film, leaving the lingering off-kilter question: Why would anyone beat up a folk singer? Thus, we have the perfect onset for this bleak and witty tale of a striving musician.
Here the Coen brothers pluck at the beatnik scene of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Helmed by long-time Coen collaborator T Bone Burnett, the tunes in this film — which are performed live — bare morbid undertones that correspond with the foremost concepts of the story: poverty, abortion, disappointment and death.
As the film opens, we are introduced to our guitar-strumming lead, Llewyn Davis, who is onstage in a smoke-filled dive.
He is played to grungy, dark and handsome perfection by the stylish and calm Juilliard-trained Oscar Isaac. This marks the first time the Miami-bred Guatemalan-born 33-year-old has anchored a feature and he carries it off with infectious grace and grit. When he sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in these initial moments, we're both seduced and heartbroken.
But for his character, a deep tune isn't enough to win over an audience. He is struggling to make it as a solo artist after his bandmate committed suicide, and his dismal hymns fail to propel him out of dire straits. Unable to afford his own place, he crashes on the couches of friends around town. Yet he's determined to keep his guitar close by and not sell out.