The Coen brothers were overdue to make a black-and-white movie. In a career spent turning film genres upside down with their revolutionary but utterly distinctive spin, it was high time for Joel and Ethan Coen to attack film’s greatest aesthetic with the same vigor they’ve used to expand our minds.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins helps them put a wonderful look together for The Man Who Wasn’t There, a fascinating revisionist film noir. Though the Coens’ story is a nimble work of genre perfection, the film’s images will linger in your mind much longer than who did what to whom. They’ve made bad films just like anybody else, but when the Coens ground their flights of fancy in beauty and storytelling, they’re capable of producing more wonder than just about any filmmakers out there.
The Man Who Wasn’t There (perhaps the Coens weren’t aware that this also is the title of a horrifically bad 1983 3-D spy caper starring Steve Guttenberg as an invisible man, but hey) is set in the Northern California town of Santa Rosa in 1949, when everybody smoked all the time and men wore cool hats while walking slowly. The film centers on Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber who smokes with his mouth shut while he observes his glacial world. We spend the entire film wondering whether Ed’s terminally purposeless stare disguises a small mind—or big plans.
We learn that Doris (Frances McDormand), Ed’s wife, might be canoodling with Big Dave (James Gandolfini), her boss at the department store. In that, Ed sees an opportunity to make some money. The noir twists begin to spread out from here, with double-crosses, convenient evidence and all the diabolical dealings you might want in a noir. Suffice to say that people die, Doris gets into trouble, blackmail plays a role and Ed begins to focus his attention on unlikely targets.
This being a Coen brothers film, every genre convention is subverted and ridiculed while being simultaneously honored by two film geeks who hardly ever take anything seriously. They’ve made a fairly straight noir before: Blood Simple, one of the genre’s dozen classics. In The Man Who Wasn’t There, the Coens land somewhere between Fargo’s delicious comic tone and Blood Simple’s straight-up menace, with the retro twist of a razor-sharp period recreation.
The Man Who Wasn’t There is a moody, slow-moving work that’s much in the fashion of Barton Fink, though it makes more sense. There are points when the action drags, but there’s also a tremendous amount of comedy—as when Ed, the narrator, shrugs off his wife’s possible affair by saying, “It’s a free country.”
The film isn’t as accessible as Fargo, to be sure. Its leisurely pace, stark imagery and sometimes meandering plot won’t hook the average viewer in the same way Fargo’s popcorn-movie feel did, but The Man Who Wasn’t There offers other treats instead. It’s a veritable catalog of noir references, with everybody from James M. Cain to Edward Dymytryk getting a nod, yet it’s not an obvious tribute piece. The Coens are talented enough to make us remember the giants of the genre while never really stealing from them.
Thornton’s hooded gaze is a perfect choice for Ed, whose every move seems to be forced by somebody else’s desperate attempt to put something over on him. Thornton restrains himself to the point of suffocation, and in doing so, he masters a role that would be too difficult for most actors—simply because they love to act. The closer Ed gets to disaster, the more peaceful he seems to become. What’s more, his laconic reaction to an encounter in the front seat of a car with an affectionate teenager (Scarlett Johansson) will prevent you from keeping a straight face in your next intimate moment.
The Man Who Wasn’t There shared a top prize at Cannes with David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. Both films are fascinating riffs on a genre that never seems to lose its power of reinvention. The Coens pay tribute to everything that came before them while simultaneously letting loose with a fine story that explodes before Ed’s sleepy, unworried eyes.
The Man Who Wasn’t There (R) HHH1/2 Directed by Joel Coen. Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand and James Gandolfini.