When you sit down to watch a Coen Brothers film, you know you’re in for a cinematic experience unlike anything else other contemporary artists are making. Whether it was the gritty and stylistic re-imagining of True Grit, the political satire via film noir via stoner comedy The Big Lebowski, or one of the true modern crime epics in No Country for Old Men, the Coens pack a potent punch of visual delights matched with a consistently dark and offbeat sense of humor. When the pantheon of great Coen films is brought up (Fargo, Lebowski, No Country, Raising Arizona), 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There is rarely, if ever brought up. It should be. Because although the film fails to meet the absurd level of perfection of Fargo or The Big Lebowski, this played straight film noir is an often breathtakingly philosophical look into the modern man and it’s nihilistic bent provides one of the most emotional Coen films this side of A Serious Man.
It’s ironic that the film proved to be such a harrowing emotional experience for me because of how emotionally dead and almost comically stoic the male lead is (but more on that in a second). But, not since my viewing of Synecdoche, New York has a piece of American cinema so convincingly reminded me of my own mortality and the potential meaningless of my own existence. On it surface, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a classic film noir (Billy Wilder would have been proud) mixed with elements of screwball comedy (in terms of the sheer avalanche of poor coincidences that haunt our hero), but at its core, the film is a terrifying peek at the price of ambition, the cruel whims of fate, and the essential fact that we will all some day die. That it manages to include all of these heady intellectual elements while still retaining the black humor normally associated with the Coens is all the more a testament to the film’s strengths.
In the 1950s, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a barber, and he doesn’t talk too much. Ruled by his cheating wife, Doris (Almost Famous‘s Frances McDormand), Ed’s life is an endless haze of haircuts and cigarettes. His life is going nowhere, and, honestly, Ed’s alright with that. But, as fate would have it, a man walks into Ed’s barber shop and tells Ed about a crazy new scheme, dry cleaning. And the man just needs $10,000 to get off the ground. Ed sees his opportunity to finally do something with his life and decides to anonymously blackmail his wife’s boss (Killing Them Softly‘s James Gandolfini) over the affair he’s having with Ed’s wife to make the money for the investment. And, I’ll stop now for fear of spoiling any of the endless twists and turns that the film’s plot takes as Ed’s one small act of rebellion avalanches into a catastrophe.
All of the hallmarks, both visually and thematically, of the film noir genre are present in The Man Who Wasn’t There. If you’ve ever watched classics like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street, you will be bowled over by how well this film nails the genre conventions. And for fans of later, more mature neo-noir like Chinatown, the Coens give this film the character depth and philosophical bent lacking in some of the older noir films. From the deep shadows to the soft focus to the shifting/morphing cigarette smoke (even to some of the strange touches of Cold War paranoia that seep into the film, I’m now realizing intentionally), the film is a visual stunner, and it’s Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography was well deserved. In fact (and this is coming from a Lord of the Rings fan boy), it should have beat The Felllowship of the Ring for Best Cinematography for 2001.
Billy Bob Thornton’s performance is kind of complicated to assess in a traditional sense. Because, he doesn’t exactly show the full spectrum of human emotions. Ed is more or less an emotionally dead man who’s living life at a robotic pace. And throughout the film, we only get brief glimpses into the kind of man Ed might have been if he hadn’t crossed paths with his domineering wife. But, if you want to talk about a performance that defines showing exactly what you need in a character through a extraordinarily restrained performance, Billy Bob Thornton gets the job done. Some might complain that much of his state of mind is gained through expository inner monologue (which is fair although mostly those moments revealed Thornton’s classic acerbic sense of humor), it appeared that Thornton was able to show Ed to be a man who has lived life always under complete control and who can’t even break loose of his self-imposed cage even though his life is falling apart around him.
Although Billy Bob defies critical assessment, the film is overflowing with superb supporting performances. Frances McDormand (who is married to one of the Coens) reminds us why she is one of the most under-appreciated talents of her generation. Through her commanding performance, we see exactly why a man like Ed would find himself unable to muster a defense to her sheer domination. James Gandolfini isn’t on the screen that long, but his Big Dave Brewster is such a dynamic and constantly shifting turn that it made me sad all over again that The Sopranos is off the air (though I have the whole series on DVD and should rewatch it soon). Gandolfini’s big climactic scene alone was enough to catapult him onto my short list for Best Supporting Actor for the 50 film block I’m working on right now. And Tony Shalhoub also makes an appearance as a fast-talking, rich lawyer whose legal gamesmanship is a sight to behold.
I’m going to draw this review to a close because it’s getting late (and I’ve become stupidly addicted to Saints Row: The Third). So, let me just say this. If you are a fan of film noir or the Coen Brothers, you owe it to yourself and to this movie to watch The Man Who Wasn’t There as soon as possible. Neo-nor remains one of modern cinema’s most consistently rewarding genres, and while this film tends to play the tropes of the 1950s almost painstakingly straight (though the Coens add their own little touches [one late twist seems a little too bizarre for me but you can judge for yourself. You’ll know what I’m talking about]), it is a hidden gem of the 2000s that has clearly slipped by too many movie lovers because it didn’t get the attention it deserved upon its initial release.
Final Score: A