Film: The Man Who Wasn't There

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Film:

The Man Who Wasn't There

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
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Distributor: Universal Studios

For all of its late-1940s cold war paranoia, pulp fiction dialogue, and frenzied greed, Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There is their most cool and collected film since Blood Simple. An unassuming barber with a scheming wife (Frances McDormand) and a serious smoking habit, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is an onlooker to his own life, a ghostly presence set against a silver-toned film noir backdrop. Only when he decides to alter his fate by blackmailing his wife’s lover (James Gandolfini) in order to invest with a traveling salesman (Jon…

Reviews

Amazon.com

For all of its late-1940s cold war paranoia, pulp fiction dialogue, and frenzied greed, Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There is their most cool and collected film since Blood Simple. An unassuming barber with a scheming wife (Frances McDormand) and a serious smoking habit, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is an onlooker to his own life, a ghostly presence set against a silver-toned film noir backdrop. Only when he decides to alter his fate by blackmailing his wife’s lover (James Gandolfini) in order to invest with a traveling salesman (Jon Polito) touting the wave of the future—dry cleaning—do we begin to hear the full extent of Ed’s understated, existential lament. As his lawyer (Tony Shalhoub) says in Ed’s defense at his eventual trial for murder, “He is modern man.” Thornton’s deadpan eloquence and cinematographer Roger Deakins’s precision lighting offer the perfect counterbalance to the requisite one-liners, plot twists, and false endings that have come to characterize recent Coen brothers films. Almost in spite of the obsessive cultural references (flying saucers, Nabokov’s Lolita, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle), Ed Crane steps neatly from the fray as one of cinema’s most memorably disenchanted characters. —Fionn Meade

Barnes and Noble

This intricately plotted, beautifully photographed homage to post-World War II film noir is nothing short of remarkable—even if it’s also, in the words of noir novelist James M. Cain, “just a little bit cold around the heart.” Billy Bob Thornton, who’s undeniably compelling in his most restrained performance ever, plays a taciturn small-town barber who blackmails his wife’s philandering boss. He just wants enough money to invest in a dry-cleaning business, but his scheme goes horribly awry when the blackmail victim turns up dead—and the finger of suspicion points in the barber’s direction. Frances McDormand plays Thornton’s brittle wife with just the right touch of weary indignation, and James Gandolfini is letter-perfect as her smarmy employer. Jon Polito (as a smooth-talking promoter), Tony Shalhoub (as a hard-charging lawyer), and Scarlett Johansson (as a virginal teen) all deliver memorable supporting turns. The script by filmmaking brothers Joel and Ethan Coen (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), while clearly inspired by such classic films as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, playfully tweaks genre conventions with welcome flashes of black humor. The crisp, Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography of Roger Deakins evokes noir masterpieces of the ‘40s and enhances the shadowy, unsettling atmosphere conjured up by the Coens. The Man Who Wasn’t There shows the talented brothers at the top of their game and is a top-flight melodrama that bears comparison to the best examples of the genre it celebrates. Joel and Ethan supply a commentary for the DVD—their first ever, with Thornton along for the ride. There are also deleted scenes, interviews with principal cast members, a making-of featurette, and a photo gallery.

Related Works

Album:The Man Who Wasn't There: Original Soundtrack

The Man Who Wasn't There: Original Soundtrack

Carter Burwell

Twenty years after their accomplished and unsettling first feature film, Blood Simple, the brothers Coen have returned to their film noir roots with an ominous, monochromatic vengeance. As in all their films, music again plays a crucial supporting role and that means the sonic seasonings of career collaborator Carter Burwell, along with a slate of typically obtuse catalog choices. Though that latter music is hardly the sort of smoky urban jazz usually associated with the genre, its mood and composer are as brooding as they come: Ludwig van…

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