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The Man Who Wasn't There   A-

USA Films

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Joel Coen
Writers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, John Polito, Tony Shalhoub, Scarlett Johansson, Katherine Borowitz, James Gandolfini.

Review by Rob Vaux

Never has a film been so aptly named. The Man Who Wasn't There, the latest opus from those demented geniuses Joel and Ethan Coen, presents a main character so invisible, he can't even get attention when he kills somebody. Raymond Chandler could empathize with his predicament. So could James M. Cain. The Man Who Wasn't There isn't so much a noir movie as a movie deeply in love with noir, a valentine to that seamy world of hard lives, deadly women, and luckless shmoes in trouble up to their armpits. The Coens have toyed with the medium before, in Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski, and even Fargo to a certain extent, but those movies used noir as a launching point, a single element in a larger picture. Here, the brothers drop all pretense and dive headfirst into the genre's heart.

The cinematography alone is worth the price of admission. Few color films can aspire to the vibrant atmosphere that DP Roger Deakins conjures in stunning black and white. From the cigarette smoke lingering on shadow-drenched porches to the stark shafts of light bisecting a prison visiting area, every single shot radiates beauty. It's a look that film-lovers know by heart, and the tale it encapsulates fits the mold to a tee.

Unfortunately for the title character, he didn't get the memo. Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a second-chair barber working out of his brother-in-law's shop, lives in a waking coma. It's 1949, in Santa Rosa California, but while the future looks bright for everyone else, Ed seems stuck in neutral. His wife Doris (Frances McDormand, brilliant as always) works as an accountant at Nirdlinger's Department store, under the tutorship of "Big Dave" Nirdlinger (James Gandolfini, also strong). Ed knows that the two are sleeping together, but can't quite muster the energy to care. His whole existence is like that, going trough the motions and dutifully suffocating beneath a blanket of anonymity. Then one day, a natty entrepreneur (John Polito) comes into the shop, talking about a marvelous new scheme called "dry cleaning." All he needs is $10,000 dollars to get off the ground, and he swears it will be a gold mine. Ed, out of boredom as much as ambition, decides to take him up on his offer. He doesn't have $10,000 dollars, but figures that an anonymous blackmail letter to Big Dave will do the trick. Threaten to expose the affair, collect the money, and get rich through dry cleaning. Simple, right?

Like I said, he didn't get the memo.

As per most Coen films, the twists build up with dizzying speed, as Ed watches his simple plan go absurdly, tragically wrong. I won't disclose the Byzantine developments, but suffice it to say, it involves a trial lawyer who refers to himself in the third person (Tony Shalhoub, marvelous), a teenage Lolita with a penchant for Beethoven (Scarlett Johansson), and for some reason Big Dave's alleged abduction by UFOs. Director Joel Coen and his producer brother Ethan revel in the seedy tenets of the genre while adding a few mocking jabs of their own. The Man Who Wasn't There clearly adores film noir, but isn't above poking fun at it either, leading to a typically Coen combination of reverence and satire. Most of the time, it works marvelously, and the film soars. A few missteps mar the proceedings, however, sacrificing the mood for the sake of some quick laughs. The Coens always had problems with excessive jokiness.

Thankfully, those moments are rare. Most of the time, The Man Who Wasn't There relishes its opportunities, balancing Ed's glum existentialism with trademark black humor. Ed wanders around like the target of some terrible cosmic joke, trying to make an impact on the world around him and failing miserably. For the second time in as many months, Thornton reminds just how good he can be, generating a silent yet powerful presence with very little effort. His character fades into the scenery yet retains our focus from beginning to end. It requires a real touch to pull it off: Ed has to register without actually registering, a seeming paradox that could destroy a lesser actor. Thornton slips into it like a second skin, creating a worthy successor to the Coens' most memorable protagonists.

With a slew of stellar performances surrounding him, The Man Who Wasn't There quickly assumes the tenor of a near-classic. Film lovers will find something to love in every shot, while more casual audiences have a chance to see what a great pair of moviemakers can do. The Coens truly love what they do, and their embrace of the medium here serves as a reminder that films can do more that extract marketable demographics. The Man Who Wasn't There is a long cool drink of water in a dry season, a homage to dark storytelling that even the Ed Cranes of the world can appreciate.

Review published 11.12.2001.

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