THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE
Director: Joel Coen
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Michael Badalucco, Katherine Borowitz, John Polito, Scarlett Johansson, Richard Jenkins, Tony Shalhoub
MPAA Rating: (for a scene of violence)
Running Time: 1:56
Release Date: 11/2/01
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Review by Mark Dujsik
The Coen brothers are probably the most reliable source of avant-garde cinema in the United States. Their films are beyond description and convention and yet still manage to be thoroughly entertaining. Their newest venture The Man Who Wasn’t There is a quirky, existentialist neo-noir which starts in the direction of a thriller but turns the tables on its setup and heads off into completely unexpected territory. Still, it all holds together, and even though the turns are surprising, they never seem out of place. The Coens somehow balance the material with their ironic tone and removed perspective and, in doing so, keep us thinking beyond the actual film itself. It brings up questions but doesn’t restrict those questions to the content of the film alone. That quality alone is an achievement that many offbeat filmmakers oftentimes forget, but Joel and Ethan Coen never insult the intelligence of their audience.
The film revolves around the titular man named Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber who lets life pass him by. He has married into his profession. He works with one other barber, his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco). He and his wife Doris (Frances McDormand) appear to simply go through motions in their marriage, and she is apparently having an affair with her boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini). One day, a businessman comes into the shop and tells Ed about a revolutionary idea in laundry, a way to clean clothes without water, only chemicals—dry cleaning. For some reason, Ed can’t shake the idea and goes to see the man about investing in his project. For ten thousand dollars, he will split the profits fifty-fifty, although Ed will exist only as a silent partner—nothing new to him. So, in what seems a perfectly reasonable plan, Ed decides to anonymously blackmail Big Dave with information about his affair with Doris.
In its exposition, The Man Who Wasn’t There borrows heavily from the staples of 1940s film noir. Lies, deceptions, blackmail, and murder all fit into the plot, and we get the feeling that the Coens are going to retrace some of the steps they took with their debut Blood Simple. But instead they take it a step further. We have the typical plot revelations (i.e., a trial), but underlying it all is this strangely thoughtful existentialist philosophy right underneath the entire narrative. Ed becomes not only an antihero but also an intriguing study of someone who takes no part in his existence. Perhaps we can understand why, too. When he does actually take some initiative, it all goes horrendously wrong. Twist upon twist is thrown into the plot, and irony upon irony builds within its subtext. Just as the plot in noir inevitably climaxes as all of the deceptions pile up, The Man Who Wasn’t There mounts to an anticlimax—the final irony—where a sort of fatalistic joke on the main character finally brings about order, even if it is a bit distorted.
That all of these undertones are coherent is quite a feat, and the execution of the film is highly skillful. The brothers’ script is full of unique dialogue, and the continuous voice-over by Ed is hilarious in the way it spells everything out and over-thinks minor details. In one prime example, Ed begins talking about how he and his wife met, but he is called away for a vital event. When he returns home, he simply continues his story, despite what has just happened. Adding to the noir feel of the film is Roger Deakins’ black-and-white cinematography. I have heard that it is harder to film in black-and-white than in color, and I believe that. Watching The Man Who Wasn’t There, I noted how shadows play an important role in certain scenes. Characters’ faces are partially obstructed and hidden, and in one scene, a man gives a lengthy monologue in a holding cell as the shadows of the bars seem to confine him. The film has a peculiar pace, too, allowing smaller, seemingly less important scenes to take as much time as scenes essential to the story. Why is a widow given an unusual amount of screentime to tell a story about UFOs? I’d say for a few reasons. First, it gives us an oddly sympathetic look at the results of a murder. It also serves as an insight into Ed, who offers to help her. Finally, it plays as simple comic relief.
Billy Bob Thornton gives one of his stronger performances as Ed. He plays him with a cigarette almost always present and an utterly stoic stillness about him. His delivery is perfectly dry and deadpan. Ed could have been a dull character, but Thornton’s performance ranks as one of the best comedic performance of the year. James Gandolfini and Frances McDormand do a lot with their relatively smaller characters. Later in the film Tony Shalhoub appears as lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider, and he’s particularly noteworthy. He’s the kind of lawyer who tells the jury to find the meaning in the facts but then reminds them that facts have no meaning. It’s a much smaller role, but he fills it with constant energy.
The Man Who Wasn’t There is admittedly not for all tastes, but it isn’t as heavy-handed as I’ve made it out to be either. The Coens have a weird talent for making big ideas entertaining. Barton Fink is about a writer struggling with the artist’s dilemma. Fargo is about a used-car salesman struggling with guilt and a police officer coming to grips with the evils of the world. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is about con men struggling with the concept of reason vs. religion. The Man Who Wasn’t There is about a barber struggling with the conflict between being and doing in a chaotic universe. Oh yes, and it’s quite funny, too.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.