The thing about Inside Llewyn Davis is that it has a phenomenally interesting narrative structure. That sounds like a euphemism, but it really isn't; among the many things the film is doing well, its structure is easily the most unmistakable and probably the most important. This is a story about a man in his late 20s trying to scrape out a living in the folk scene in New York's Greenwich Village in 1961, that pivots to a great degree on the question of whether the man in question - Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) - is capable of shifting who he is and how he behaves enough to break out of a cycle of disappointing himself and others that has been going on for quite a long while. Nor is it any spoiler to say that it looks like it will be going on for a while yet, as the film reaches its conclusion. And what screenwriters/directors/greatest living American filmmakers Joel & Ethan Coen do to explore and expand upon this theme of perpetual stasis, of being so comfortable a failure that one happily continues along in self-defeating paths in the full knowledge that they are self-defeating, is to build the entire shape of their film around it.

It becomes overt in the final scene, which I will not further discuss because the experience of seeing it for the first time is too special to spoil it, but by the time we get that far, it's already quite clear that this is the idea behind scenes which consistently interrupt narrative momentum rather than advance it, and the presence of conflicts that either resolve or die off before they're able to supply the film with a dramatic spine that it never acquires. It is a film about being stuck in a rut that places itself in exactly that situation. Llewyn can't escape his situation, because the very narrative concept of his universe denies the possibility of sustained change. It bears a significant resemblance to A Serious Man, most of all of the directors' films, though without quite such intense narrative nihilism; the feeling here is more that life keeps trudging without beginnings or endings, not that it slams into a brick wall and explodes. But the itchy sense of pointlessness in the character's life (not in the film, please understand!) is the same.

To anyone not automatically on the Coens' characteristic wavelength, I suppose this must look like the same stuff that people always accuse them of: punishing a character they think they're better than, by building a movie around him specifically designed to humiliate him and thwart him. For myself, I find this to be the single best argument they've ever made against that well-worn claim: Llewyn is a largely unpleasant and solipsistic person, the most readily unlikable protagonist in any Coen film since Barton Fink, but he's also probably the character for whom the filmmakers have demonstrated the most obvious sympathy throughout their career.

That, as much as anything, I believe to be driven by the other thing about Inside Llewyn Davis, which is that it's only the second Coen film in 23 years that hasn't been shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins. And while 2008's Burn After Reading found Emmanuel Lubezki funneling his own characteristic style into a channel that was, if not exactly faux-Deakins, still within the general neighborhood of his work with the Coens, Inside Llewyn Davis finds Bruno Delbonnel shooting a Bruno Delbonnel movie (incidentally, the fact that my favorite working directors have now worked with my three favorite working cinematographers gives me all kinds of fanboygasms).

That means a lot of soft focus, extensive color correction, and above all, gradations of soft light rather than sharp delineations between light and dark, and this is hugely important. The overall sense I have in watching the film is that it is hazy and green, not "nostalgic" in the way that a a lot of films use color schemes to look like a photo album, but giving the impression anyway of having come to us from across a long distance of time. More importantly, it is not as precise-looking as a Deakins project (I'm borrowing the word "precise" from a cinematographer friend, who like myself doesn't use it to mean that Delbonnel just kind of slops up his light and camera and wanders off for a sandwich, but that there's a fineness of detail work deliberately eschewed in his work), which also makes it less unforgiving. You can't watch Fargo's hard whites and think of anything besides how mercilessly it leaves its characters unprotected and naked; and you can't watch the fuzzy Inside Llewyn Davis and think of anything besides how gently it's caressing even the most outwardly awful human beings onscreen.

And there are some outwardly awful people, and almost nothing but one-note stock types, though this is certainly not a problem - quite the opposite, in fact. This is, after all, a Coen comedy, and the thing they have long done as well as anybody is to populate their screenplays with well-etched oddballs. Inside Llewyn Davis exaggerates this impulse somewhat, owing to its episode structure, which finds Llewyn crossing paths with a number of people over the course of a very stressful week, many of them symbolic in some way, only one of whom is so symbolic that it trumps character reality. The most screentime is given over to Carey Mulligan's Jean, a shrill harridan who treats Llewyn with undisguised scorn and regret for their ill-advised sexual dalliance, and in keeping with the film's pleasant feeling towards its cast, she's far more than just a nagging scold: for one thing, she's absolutely, demonstrably right about every nasty thing she says, something Llewyn recognises as readily as we do. For another, Mulligan's immensely fun portrayal of the character (who receives all of the very best lines in a film with top-drawer dialogue throughout) is shaded enough that we can detect the wounded inner self that leads her to be so tart and cruel, without either making the scenes about her, or muting their comedy.

But while she's the stand-out in an impressively packed ensemble, there are plenty of memorable figures throughout: John Goodman as a vulgar, imperious jazz snob (hardly subtle, but probably my favorite performance he's given in a Coen film), F. Murray Abraham as a solitary face of sane normality in the film - the only person in the movie, incidentally, who lives in the Midwest, which the Minnesotan Coens may or may not have intended as a commentary on personality types across America - Robin Bartlett and Ethan Phillips as a married pair of pointedly colorless but enthusiastic music aficionados, Garret Hedlund as a surreal but hugely effective parody (probably accidental) of the character he played in On the Road, and thus of the late-'50s and early-'60s intelligentsia generally. None of them make more than a small blip in Llewyn's travails, but all of them leave a huge impression as both caricature and fleshed-out cameo simultaneously. Only Justin Timberlake has a hard time leaving a mark, in no small part because of how impossible it is for him to pull focus from Mulligan, with whom he shares a good deal of his small screentime.

Still it's Llewyn's odyssey (and his Odyssey, which is purposefully alluded to; this is an anti-Odyssey as thoroughly as O Brother, Where Art Thou? is an Odyssey homage), and he's a captivating figure throughout. In a just and fair world, Isaac would now become one of our new great indie stars and character actors, though I'm not dumb enough to assume that it will play out that way; but it's a truly magnificent performance, among the best that the Coens have ever featured in a film, largely because the actor has to carry the whole thing like virtually none of their protagonists ever have. There's a lot of meat to the role: self-loathing, selfishness, transcendent love of art, guilt, impatience, and a peculiar frenemy relationship with a housecat (the best movie cat in years, I might add) and Isaac combines these different emotions in surprising and moving ways, enough to make this irritating, unreliable mess of a man into someone remarkably human.

It's still a Coen movie: there's still sarcasm, dry dialogue, absurd cod-symbolism, and a sense that it's not taking itself nearly as seriously as most of its audience ever will. It's not, like, treacly. But it is one of their warmest films, poking holes in our fantasies about the '60s, artists, and New York City, and refusing to deny that people can be really shitty to each other almost constantly, but doing it from a place of love and understanding. It's not their funniest, prettiest, or best movie, but in a lot of unexpected and hugely rewarding ways, it might be their most mature.