Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), an uncompromising, narcissistic folk-singer in 1961, gigs all too infrequently. He exists -- a word he hates, by the way, one he uses to describe the plight of all people who aren't pure artists like himself -- in a series of borrowed crash pads, strange cars, suffocatingly narrow apartment corridors, fire escapes and, at his lowest, in the street during a frozen, always-snowing winter. He has no home, no coat, a dwindling supply of friends from whom he mooches money, shelter and food. He leaves a trail of unwanted pregnancies and lost pets in his wake. You could call him difficult to like.
The definition of prickly lone wolf -- his former singing partner committed suicide, the ultimate act of both defriending and artistic purity -- Llewyn stumbles from from one hazardous human interaction to the next, ruining relationships along the way. He can barely accept work without insulting the person who offers it, he accuses other fellow singers (Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan) of being "square," "careerist" and "sad" even as he begs them for help. All right, he's more than difficult to like; he's insufferable.
Worse, still, as an artist, the kind of person the culture imagines possesses a kind of mystical awareness of the human condition, Llewyn's instincts suck. He walks into dark alleys and right into the fists of shady men, he bites the hands that feed him, rejects family involvement, self-righteously sabotages auditions. On his journey toward… who knows what… something other than home, he criss-crosses paths with musicians even more toxic than himself (a hilariously unpleasant John Goodman) and a pointedly (and symbolically) named cat. But it's the animal that knows where it's going and lands on its feet, not Llewyn.
In the narrative universe of Joel and Ethan Coen, these problematic people are the ones worth watching. As filmmakers they take misfits of all stripes, both comic and tragic (this time it's an uncomfortable allowance of both) and toss them into the deep end. They've been criticized in the past for making it seem like they're hoping for those characters to drown, but what it really feels like is an ongoing series of studies in the ways we fail to be the people we wish we were. When a future superstar of folk shows up in Llewyn's story and our un-hero's life loops itself, it's not the end, it's just the depressing start of the next lap in his ongoing, Sisyphean task of existence.
There are moments of tenderness, almost all of them musical. At one point Llewyn sings to his elderly, mute father and it's the film's way of pointing him in a hopeful direction, even if it's only for a moment. He quickly dismisses its effects, of course, letting the audience feel it instead. And as he literally, and angrily, rejects harmony -- and not just the spiritual kind -- the Coens mean to push you to toward pity or empathy (or whatever you've got to give hovering in between them). Llewyn, naturally, tragically, has nothing to give back. He's running around in circles, maybe forever.