The Man Who Wasn't There
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson

Joel Coen

Writing credits: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Distributor: USA Films * 116 minutes
Rated: R for a scene of violence
  (US 2001)

The Coen brothers' just-slightly-off-kilter universe is like ackee and saltfish -- a strange and exotic dish that some people taste once and fall in love, and others just don't see what the fuss is about. While their films range from the reasonably accessible (RAISING ARIZONA) to the completely bizarre (BARTON FINK), and some are nearly perfect (O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU) while others miss completely (THE BIG LEBOWSKI), one thing is always certain: No one else does what the Coen brothers do, and no other writer/director team so perfectly melds exquisite language, innovative photography, and quirky storytelling.

In examining the Coen oeuvre, it's clear that the brothers have a strong feel for that period of the twentieth century that surround WWII, or at least the aura as depicted in movies of the era. Yet theirs is not Normal Rockwellian nostalgia in the Frank Capra mode. In this entry door into the Coen Universe, the past we revere is vaguely sinister -- DARK CITY as directed by Billy Wilder from a novel by James M. Cain. It's UNPLEASANTVILLE.

Billy Bob Thornton, who despite his somewhat odd, overly-publicized marriage, is emerging as one of the more interesting actors of our era, is Ed Crane, a plain man, an ordinary man, a barber who is so taciturn and bland, he's well, the man who might as well not be there. A chance encounter with a customer in a bad toupee(Jon Polito), seeking venture capital for a dry cleaning franchise, ends up embroiling Ed in a classic noir web, involving infidelity, blackmail, betrayal, accidental death, murder, mistaken identity, clueless law enforcement, shyster lawyers, and because this is, after all, the Coen brothers, an alien spaceship. But also because this is the Coen brothers, nothing is quite what it seems.

Ed, an emotionally stunted man, tenderly shaves his wife's legs and reacts strongly to an acquaintance's daughter's wooden playing of Beethoven sonatas. The man with whom Ed's wife is having an affair is none other than James Gandolfini, lightly spoofing his Tony Soprano image to portray Dave Brewster, manager through marriage of Nirdlingers, one of those midrange, now-defunct department stores. The femme fatale in this tale is none other than the great Frances McDormand, who despite being over forty and far from a conventional beauty, shows once again why she is a Great Actress in the best possible sense. Her Doris is a noir bombshell with a heart that yearns more than her hormones do.

Other reviewers have printed spoiler after spoiler about this film, and while plot twists and turns are part of the story, there are few surprises here, because this is, after all, formulaic film noir, where nondescript men who live in nondescript towns, and who are guilty at first only of perhaps a sensitivity that their placid exteriors belie, become embroiled in a relentlessly progressing series of missteps, marching relentlessly to their own doom as if merely watching. So I will not bore you, kind reader, with such insignificances here. For THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE is, while not precisely a triumph of style over substance, it is certainly a triumph of style.

This is the sort of film that demonstrates why great filmmaking is an art. The Coens have already shown in films like THE HUDSUCKER PROXY their love for, and attention to, period detail. THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE re-creates the late 1940s as depicted by Hollywood so meticulously, there isn't an anachronism in the entire film. Every detail is time-perfect: stockings with reinforced heels and seams, perfume atomizers with those fabric-covered squeeze bulbs; cheap art-deco vintage furniture in hotel rooms, drab, middle-tasteless furnishings in a drab-middle-tasteless Craftsman bungalow (before they became "charming vintage houses"), pulp magazines. Even the way people talk is time-perfect. No one curses the way they do today. Ed's most profane remark is "Heavens to Betsy!" This isn't the nostalgia that merely proves the how adept the set designer is at prowling antique stores and Ebay. On the contrary, for those of us born long enough ago to remember such vestiges of early postwar life, the images are downright creepy, reaching down into our long-dormant memories. Nirdlinger's Department Store strongly evokes the long-gone Plainfield, New Jersey mainstay Tepper's, as well as the now-defunct Hahne's in Newark. I remember barber shops that resembled Guzzi's, the shop owned by his garrulous brother-in-law (Coen stalwart Michael Badalucco) in which Ed is "second barber."

This depiction of the dawn of the nuclear age is not the cheeky sendup of 1950's family sitcoms we saw in Gary Ross's excellent, but certainly different, PLEASANTVILLE. The Coens are very much cognizant of the sense of foreboding, of potential nuclear annihilation that lay behind the placid face of postwar America, suggesting, but only briefly mentioning, the unknowns that lay before us at the time.

Once again, the Coens' great cinematographer Roger Deakens is in peak form. His black-and-white photography has a crispness and a dimensionality that sets THE MAN WHO.... apart as a modern entity which pays tribute, rather than aping, the noir films of the 1940's. Combined with a vaguely sinister, sickly greenish tint and unflattering lighting of the characters, the overall feel is one of malaise, rather than calm and prosperity. Some cinematic moments are absolutely lovely -- bits of a boy's hair dropping onto a barbershop floor like snow...a car hurtling through space like E.T.'s bicycle...a beam of light through a prison ceiling.

Coen brothers films are about art and light and philosophy and detached observations of human nature filtered through their own off-kilter perspective, rather than character and performance, for all that they tend to attract some of the best character actors around. Thornton, whose range encompasses everything from the poignantly simple (Karl Childers in SLING BLADE, Jacob Mitchell in A SIMPLE PLAN) to the inscrutable (Russell Bell in PUSHING TIN), adds a new dimension to his repertoire with Ed Crane, blending Gary Cooper's stoicism with Raymond Massey's suppressed malevolence and Humphrey Bogart's toughness. Perhaps never before has anyone given a performance in which the mere act of smoking is so eloquent. It's Thornton's film, and when he is on screen with McDormand, their characters react off of each other in such a way that their boredom and malaise seeps into the viewers very pores. Tony Shaloub adds a necessary spark of life to the proceedings in a manic performance as attorney Freddy Riedenschneider, whose philosophy of lawyering involves The Uncertainty Principle. Its thesis: “The more you look, the less you know.”

Like most of this duo's films, THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE is not without its faults. A side plot involving an unexplained spaceship seems gratuitously weird, for all that this was the Age of Roswell. The film is about a half-hour too long, and seems to end at two earlier points in the films; fadeouts that would have made for a far more effective film. Still, this film stands alongside MEMENTO as one of the best films of the year; a film that once again shows us that film is a canvas, and skilled direction its paint.


- Jill Cozzi

Review text copyright © 2001 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.


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