Demonstrating once again that the Coen Brothers are two of the most playful and original voices in American cinema, The Man Who Wasn't There attracts on several levels - for its genre twisting, existential soul-searching, seductive black-and-white visuals, and off-the-wall humour. Yet the reason to see the film, above any other, is Billy Bob Thornton. Delivering a mesmeric performance, it is impossible to take your eyes of him - which is both ironic and clever given that he is the 'man' of the title, the man that people rarely notice, that they walk past on the street and talk at rather than to.
Thornton plays a barber, Ed Crane, who lives in a small town in northern California in the late 1940s, and works for his brother-in-law. When the opportunity to make some money presents itself in the guise of a dry-cleaning enterprise, suspecting that his wife Doris (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini), Crane sees the chance for some judicious blackmail and the possibility of escape. Needless to say, all does not go according to plan. Narratively bearing many of the distinct hallmarks of a crime noir - suspicion, extortion, a cheating woman and misadventure - the Coen brothers self-admittedly found inspiration from James M. Cain. In true noir style, exuding an air of Bogart insouciance, a cigarette constantly droops from Crane's mouth that hardly moves, and each cavernous line etched into his craggy face seems to hide a story, or thought. One eyebrow is often raised as if he is caught between a permanent state of anxiety and query; part of him cannot quite believe the way of the world and the other part doesn't seem to care.
Yet Crane is far more na´ve than Bogart's often cynical, worldly-wise characters, and has none of his arrogance, although at times he comes close to the menace. When he is propositioned by a homosexual, for instance, and declines, the man quickly realises that it would be unwise to push the point. His voice-over emphasises his earnestness and lack of spite: amongst the topics he ranges, he thinks a great deal about hair and its significance, also what it would mean to escape his life. The narrative construct, which becomes more complex as the story continues, knowingly draws attention to itself. At one point, Crane is sitting on the bed next to his sleeping wife and talking in voice-over about the way they met. Interrupted by the phone, he leaves the house. Returning several scenes later, he resumes his position on the bed and continues the re-telling where he left off.
Shot by regular collaborator Director of Photography Roger Deakins, each scenario is beautifully composed, the requisite high and low angles creating an off-kilter impression, and in looming prison bars and silhouetted shapes, impending doom. Though surreally, as always, the occasional visual oddity cheekily breaks through the polished surface. With few of the out-and out-laughs that featured in The Hudsucker Proxy or The Big Lebowski, the film's humour creeps up on you, usually through character detail - whether it be Doris, whose honking laugh lasts too long for comfort, or Big Dave's wife, who is convinced that he has been altered by an experience with aliens and subsequently embroiled in a government conspiracy. With its mellifluous score, which encompasses Beethoven and a laid-back, small-town langour, this is a ruminative work - a film to sit back and absorb, and then probably watch again, if only for Billy Bob Thornton's face.
Reviewed by Hannah Patterson
Reader comments about The Man Who Wasn't There
Steven (ChiTown_Steve@Hotmail.com) writes:
I just saw a preview last night, and I have to say that it is the strangest movie I've seen since film school! I enjoyed it for the most part, but the "reel" treat was the cinematography and lighting. This was one of the most beautifully shot films I've seen in a long time.
Montague Meyer (Email address withheld) writes:
What film have you seen? This is very boring to watch, and I slept through it. OK, so we have the classic theme of man which leaves no trace - no children, no name, no hair, no smile, no dry-cleaning, but it is also excrucifyingly slow - and there is much black and white humour. Film noir is OK, but not in the classico-modern ontologie style, where the overview of humans is very black for ants. Beautiful shootings are good if you want to die young, but this has self-indulgence in the frames. Spare us further serious films, and make comedy like Lebovski, I think.
John Golden (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes:
Well I throughly enjoyed it. The acting was good throughout, good attention to detail, characterisation. No complaints in any field. But then I didn't think that much of the Big Lebovski <Just a case of different tastes I suppose>
Scotar (email@example.com) writes:
The film seems to explore the relationship between fantasy and reality, pointing out that perception in many cases overrules truth. At the same time, it extends this conflict to the human personality, also illustrating the importance of perception... and offers dreams as the measure of truth. An outright alien thing truth can be at times...
Jully (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes:
This movie goes deep. You can't see it at first, but once you look at it really closly you see how strange it is.
kurtz (Email address withheld) writes:
I grew up watching old movies. I didn't love them all; they were what was on the Superstation. This film's direction captures the look, and feel of those films, with a modern cinematographer's technology and eye.
The real treat is in the Dialogue. Every word, inference, and idiom is pulled from classic film, but the context creates a self awareness drawn from 21st century experiences. It honors the distinct, romantic flow of 40's dialogue pushing expressive limits within moral (and at the time, political) constraints. At the same time, it pokes fun at the more conservative side of 40's conversation.
The most memorable and funny for me is the brief conversation between Crane's brother & law and a random barbershop client about how to start a vehicle. With modern double entendre, "Pull it" and "Choke it" are brought to new light.
Anita (Email address withheld) writes:
The Man Who Wasn't There
..is a good film, but Blood Simple is better.
The Coen Brothers's debut film made on a shoestring budget. Noticeably less wacky than their later films with a pulpyness that makes Fargo look like Carebears.
Strong narrative style, bar-owner husband (Dan Hedaya) hires a sleazy private eye (M. Emmet Walsh) to murder his cheating wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz). A comic-book version of film noir, spare and clean yet sharply self-aware with subtle and darkly morbid humour (cinematographer/now director Barry Sonnenfeld.) Almost every scene in the film contains an essence of darkness as characters graduate towards a realisation of truth. Judged on inventiveness alone it makes for one of best independent films ever made. The directors cut is shorter than the 1985 original according to the Coen brothers has had the "boring bits cut out".
(Email address withheld) writes:
A very slow movie that preys on film noir's mores and overtones. I was highly satisfied by a couple of deft touches, for instance, when Thornton is sitting on the frying chair and he looks away at the hairdos of the guys that will witness his execution: it harks back beautifully to his ever present obsession with his job as a barber. Nice and timely.
Add your comments about The Man Who Wasn't There [About]