The Man Who Wasn't There
The Man Who Wasn't There

USA, 2001. Rated R. 116 minutes.

Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, James Gandolfini, Jon Polito, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Shalhoub, Katherine Borowitz, Richard Jenkins, Christopher McDonald
Writers: Joel & Ethan Coen
Music: Carter Burwell
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
Producers: Ethan Coen, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner
Director: Joel Coen


Grade: B+ Review by Jeff Vorndam

I n terms of style, the new film from Joel and Ethan Coen is the opposite of their previous movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Where that film was ultra-colorful, both in its photography and its acting, The Man Who Wasn't There is muted and deadpan (which isn't to say that it is humorless, this is still a Coen brothers film). Both films were shot in color, but O Brother's colors were enriched and saturated via digital wizardry. The Man Who Wasn't There had its color drained, leaving it resembling a black-and-white film. The absence of vibrancy is important to The Man Who Wasn't There, because it's a film about a man who loses everything he has, including, perhaps, his soul.

The Man Who Wasn't There utilizes the conventions of film noir more expressly than any Coen brothers film since Blood Simple. Most obviously, its black and white palette is manipulated by the technique of chiaroscuro to create foreboding shadows and ribbons of light that intersect the frame in bizarre and unsettling ways, which belie the normalcy of the film's setting. That setting is Santa Rosa, California, in 1949. (The town may be familiar to film buffs as the locale for Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt.) In this seemingly innocuous, jerkwater burg resides a barber named Ed Crane (played by Billy Bob Thornton, who in black-and-white looks like a cross between Humphrey Bogart and James Mason). "I never thought of myself as a barber," croaks Crane in the film's first line, a deadpan voice-over that accompanies the rest of the movie in a typically fatalistic noir fashion. In the film's opening words we learn what our protagonist is not. Negation is a theme in the film; characters are defined by what they didn't do, effort is revealed to be useless, and introspection and investigation fruitless tasks.
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Ed Crane is a man of few words. When he does speak, he takes his time and makes every word count. Naturally, all his acquaintances are motor mouths, their logorrhea a constant hum that overtakes him, and makes him a nonentity in any social situation. His partner at the barbershop is his garrulous brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco), a man for whom no thought is too insignificant to expound upon verbally. Frank's sister, Ed's wife, is as loud and assertive as Ed is quiet and reserved. She is played by Coen brothers stalwart Frances McDormand in a brassy manner that implies sexual freedom, and indeed, she is cheating on Ed with Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), the owner of a local department store with the great name Nirdlingers. Ed is aware of her infidelity, but it's not until a chance encounter with a sweaty, bewigged entrepreneur (Jon Polito) that Ed gets the idea of blackmail into his head.

In most film noir, the protagonist is a basically decent fellow who gets into trouble due either to a checkered past that comes back to haunt him, or a single unwise decision, usually motivated by greed or lust. In Ed's case, it's the latter, and his plan to blackmail Big Dave for $10,000 goes horribly, inevitably wrong. The disaster is out of proportion to the sin that precipitated it, and hence the noir hero's despairing feeling of the whole world out to get him. The rest of the film follows Ed's attempts to wriggle free from this mess, but like a beast stuck in a tar pit, his actions prove futile. The ineffectuality of action is a recurring theme in the film. Ed's profession as a barber is the primary example. As Ed states, no matter how much hair he cuts, it always grows back. Where does it come from? What mark does he leave on the world? This question is posed in the film's grimly ironic finale, by which time everything Ed has attempted has been nullified by an opposite circumstance. The film gets its title by rendering Ed Crane ultimately as the embodiment of the Superfluous Man, without purpose or direction. Billy Bob Thornton

Crane's plans for himself fail in every arena, with every other character in the film. His lawyer, a fast-talking big shot from Sacramento named Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shaloub, exhibiting the same barking-loon style that earned Michael Lerner an Oscar Nomination for Barton Fink), strains to provide reasonable doubt by applying Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, but he never gets a chance because Ed's brother-in-law shortfuses the trial. Ed's pipe dream of becoming the manager for the singing career of Birdy (Scarlett Johansson, calling to mind Lauren Bacall) is waylaid by her lack of talent, and a beauty of a car accident. The only thing Ed does accomplish is a lot of cigarette smoking. (This film contains the most smoking since Out of the Past. In homage to that definitive film noir, the Coens reprise the joke where one character offers another a cigarette and the other responds by holding up the smoke he is already enjoying.)

Smoke looks great in black-and-white of course, and praise must be given to director of photography Roger Deakins, who once again makes the Coen film its year's most distinctive looking. Black-and-white films that have been made in the last few years all look great. [I'm too young to remember when they were the standard, and most of the older black-and-white films have decayed or worn so much that they appear as to be artifacts rather than art (though color fares even worse over time).] This film's clear, untarnished image highlights the repressed passion that courses beneath the impassive exterior of Ed Crane. Its crispness contrasts placidity with angst and defeat. It's a must-see in a dark theater, where the shadows can blend into the black on the screen, and the film's world becomes your world.

Review © October 2001 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2001 USA Films. All Rights Reserved.

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