The Man Who Wasn't There
Screenplay : Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2001
Stars : Billy Bob Thornton (Ed Crane), Frances McDormand (Doris Crane), James Gandolfini (Big Dave), Michael Badalucco (Frank), Katherine Borowitz (Ann Nirdlinger), Jon Polito (Creighton Tolliver), Scarlett Johansson (Birdy Abundas), Richard Jenkins (Walter Abundas), Tony Shalhoub (Freddy Riedenschneider)
Classic film noir—those American crime films made in the darkness of the neurotic postwar years that the French recognized as genius but the homefront could only see as B-movies that weren't well lit—almost always centered around an ordinary man who got in over his head. Like shadowy inversions of the American dream, they dolled out poetic justice for everyday Joes who thought they could get ahead by cutting a corner. Their crime was sometimes small, sometimes big, but it always snowballed in an unexpected way and led to trouble all around. Essentially existential in nature, there is still an overriding fatalism to film noir that makes their moralistic conclusions somehow inevitable.
It is this more than anything that Joel and Ethan Coen's stately neo-noir The Man Who Wasn't There evokes. Shot in gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Roger Deakins (who has collaborated with the Coens on their last five films), it is an elegant piece of cinematic nostalgia with a few ironic twists and gleefully irreverent turns. Like those funky Chrysler PT Cruisers, it is meant to look like something from the past, but at the same time remain firmly rooted in the present tense.
Visually, it evokes both the small-scale treachery of low-budget noir and the grandiosity of films like Citizen Kane (there is one scene in a prison that is bathed in thick, triangular columns of sunlight from a window above that is a direct reference to cinematographer Gregg Toland's dazzling work in Kane). As much as the Coens admire their cinematic predecessors of the Hollywood Studio Era, they are primarily interested in reimagining the old in a new era. Thus, they are not above injecting such bizarre Cold War paranoia as alien abductions into their tale, thus foregrounding tensions and fears that were either displaced or hidden just beneath the surface of films in the '40s and '50s.
The Coens immediately set up their greatest challenge with their central character, Ed Crane, who is played by Billy Bob Thorton in a performance that is somehow utterly inexpressive and yet deeply felt. As the titular "man who wasn't there," Ed is a shadowy figure—the marginalized film noir antihero taken to the logical extreme. Working the second chair in a small-town Southern California barber shop owned by his overly talkative brother-in-law (Michael Badalucco), Ed chain smokes unfiltered cigarettes while cutting hair all day, and then he goes home at night to his passionless marriage with Doris (Frances McDorman), a bookkeeper at a local department store. Ed is sure that Doris is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini), not that he seems to mind all that much; or, more specifically, he does mind, but is incapable of doing anything about it.
But, one day, after listening to a spiel by a shady out-of-town businessman (Jon Polito) in need of $10,000 start-up capital for his revolutionary dry-cleaning business, Ed decides to take action for once in his life. Amusingly, the manner in which he goes about taking action is about as exciting as the way he goes about giving a kid a crew-cut—matter of fact and to the point, just to get the business done. With a single anonymous letter, he blackmails Big Dave for the 10 grand (remember, this was an era in which you could blackmail someone by threatening to expose adultery), which leads to a series of events that snowballs in classic noir fashion. Although the film's pace is decidedly leisurely, the Coens pack in more than their share of plot twists and unexpected developments, including two murders, a suicide, two murder trials (both of which involve a fast-talking, high-price attorney played by Tony Shalhoub), a car accident, and more than a few false arrests (in fact, the police don't ever arrest the right person for the right crime).
The Coens have long been criticized for being expert formalists with no heart, and The Man Who Wasn't There seems at first glance to play right into such an argument (perhaps on purpose?). Formally dazzling and finely written (the Coens' ear for strangely intoxicating period and regional dialogue is sharp as always), the film gambles on centering itself around an inexpressive man whose psychological motivations are as shadowy as Deakins' cinematography. If ever there was a character who could be accused of being a cog in the plot machine—moving passively from predetermined event to event while we watch in detached amusement—it is Ed Crane.
But, look again, and you will find a fascinating character whose depth increases as the film progresses. As physically stoic and facially inexpressive as he is (Thornton's chiseled face seems to be frozen into an unchanging form of mild puzzlement, with furrowed brow, slightly squinted eyes, and flat mouth), Ed is given complexity by what is usually the bane of movies: the voice-over narration. A long-standing tradition of film noir, Ed narrates The Man Who Wasn't There from start to finish, and, given his disposition in person, he is surprisingly talkative. Part of the film's edge is the way Ed's complex voice-over contradicts his seeming lack of expression and general inarticulateness.
But, rather than simply being a contradiction, it instead paints a portrait of a man who maintains an exterior that is essentially a disguise. There is a lot going on inside Ed's head—and, as viewers, we are privy to it, while other characters in the movie are not, and thus they deal with him as a passive lug. This way, the Coens manage to generate sympathy for a man who is essentially an opportunist. Ed is tragic because he is misunderstood, which makes it impossible to watch in detachment as the situation tightens around him. We genuinely care about this sap, especially when he finds inspiration in a local teenager (Scarlett Johansson) whose musical abilities Ed significantly overestimates as an opportunity to finally see something in life flourish, rather than fail.
But, as much as The Man Who Wasn't There brilliantly evokes the film noir period, there is one crucial way in which it differs. While classic film noir emerged out of genuine social unease about the postwar world, The Man Who Wasn't There has no genuine links to the world outside itself. This is coded visually in Deakins' gorgeous photography, which is, truth be told, a little too gorgeous at times. Classic film noir were gritty and expressive, cheap and quickly made by filmmakers who were tuned in to the zeitgeist, but unaware that they were making minor masterpieces. The Man Who Wasn't There is certainly a labor of love for the Coens, but at times it wears that love on its sleeve a little too proudly.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick