The Man Who Wasn’t There Review

(3.5 STARS)

The Man Who Wasn’t There is a deliciously offbeat, darkly comic noir that could only come from the minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. The story’s twists are painfully clever, and its performances are nearly perfect. It’s a little long-winded, which prevents it from being among Fargo and No Country for Old Men as the directors’ best films. But it’s certainly one of their most unique projects, and it contains its fair share of small delights.

Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is about as unhappy a man as we’ve encountered in a Coen film. In late-1940s California, Ed is a barber who hates his life. He doesn’t like cutting hair, and he can’t stand his talky co-worker/brother-in-law. And his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), cares much more for her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini), than Ed. When a slimy businessman (Jon Polito) offers him the chance to make some big bucks—and possibly escape his down-and-out life—he gets excited. But he needs $10,000, and fast. So he blackmails Big Dave, whom he suspects is sleeping with his wife. The blackmail leads Ed, Big Dave, Doris, and Creighton Tolliver (Polito) down a path of lies, betrayals, trials, vehicular fellatio, and death.

The ultimate arc of the narrative is so smart and unpredictable that it took a while for its brilliance to set in. I really enjoyed the film as I was watching it, but mulling it over afterward actually made me love it even more. The film is steeped in irony at every turn (including one of the most twisted ways ever to get a job promotion), and while it plays very seriously in the moment, you realize the humor of it all once the credits start rolling. Even if it’s not my all-time favorite Coen film, I think the narrative itself might be their strongest.

The film’s other principle strength is Roger Deakins gorgeous black-and-white photography. It’s a visually stunning motion picture, and its style helps reinforce the film’s old-fashioned noir sensibilities. The story doesn’t quite fit that old noir prototype, but it’s impossible not to think of films like Double Indemnity and The Asphalt Jungle while watching The Man Who Wasn’t There, even if they don’t share much narratively.

Billy Bob Thornton gives his first Coen performance, and it’s an atypical one for many reasons. First, the character doesn’t quite fit the mold of your average Coen lead—who would usually be more charming and optimistic than Ed Crane. He also is the film’s narrator—something the brothers have used in the past with film’s like The Big Lebowski and The Hudsucker Proxy, but those films’ narrators were not major characters. It’s an interesting technique in this case because it gives us some insight into who this typically silent man really is and what he’s thinking. Overall, I thought Thornton’s performance was good. Not spectacular, but solid. He does just what’s needed of him to sell us this mysterious man named Ed Crane.

Frances McDormand is fine, as always. Doris, too, is a bit of a mystery to us, as she is to her husband. James Gandolfini leaves Tony Soprano at home to present us a vulnerable, kindly guy who’s made a couple of big mistakes. The best-in-show award, however, goes to Tony Shalhoub, as a fast-talking lawyer who doesn’t much care for facts, but rather what the facts imply.

The film really is an interesting one because it’s just impossible to figure it all out in one shot. Credit that to, among other things, the odd subplots of a dirty, piano-playing teen (Scarlett Johannson) and an alien abduction. We already knew these brother could do noir (see Blood Simple for evidence), but I, for one, had no idea they had a film like this up their sleeves. As good as many of their previous efforts had been, this is a one-of-a-kind effort that deserves more acclaim than it has received.

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