Before we know anything about Llewyn Davis, the rising folk singer at the center of Joel and Ethan Coen’s superb new film “Inside Llewyn Davis,” we see him singing on stage. That’s for the best; as a person, Davis is rudderless, but as a musician he’s immaculate. In a hushed Village club, Davis strums an acoustic guitar and sings a rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” a lament that’s piercing in its vulnerability. Filmed simply and intimately, the scene leaves no doubt about Davis’ artistry though his position in 1961’s Greenwich Village music scene is never less than precarious.
It’s an affecting introduction to the character, as well as to the actor who plays him. For several years, Oscar Isaac has worked consistently in supporting roles: the villainous King John in “Robin Hood”; the haunted ex-con Standard in “Drive.” But “Inside Llewyn Davis” is this Juilliard-trained actor’s first major lead role. That it just so happens to be in a movie directed by his favorite filmmakers is perfectly in keeping with the film’s exploration of how talent and chance mysteriously intertwine, elevating some to stardom while leaving others to be forgotten footnotes.
“This movie is a recognition that there’s very few shooting-star geniuses—and even for those people, I would say that luck plays a huge role,” says Isaac, sitting in a Los Angeles conference room as part of a busy day of promotion that will include photo shoots and Q&As. It’s a hectic schedule, but Isaac seems energized, understanding how good fortune has brought him to this moment. “You know, [the Coens] have been working on this movie for 10 years. Had they gotten it together five years ago, I’m not in it—or if it was five years [from now]. In my career, I’ve had a lot of that: The right thing at the right time got me the job, and then someone saw that, and that got me the next thing. It could just have easily gone the other way, and still could.”
Amiable and thoughtful, Isaac is not much like the stoic, sardonic Davis, a luckless talent at a personal crossroads who’s frustrated by his going-nowhere solo career amidst the blossoming folk revival. And because the Coens, masters of an ambivalent tone previously evident in “A Serious Man” and “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” only reveal hints of his backstory, Davis (like the film itself) is open to interpretation: His life is either a dark comedy or a moving meditation on the unseen forces that shape our destiny.