movie review by
David Ng


(© 2001 USA Films. All rights reserved.)

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The Man Who Wasn't There

A glorified film school experiment with first-rate production values and featuring the best male performance so far this year, The Man Who Wasnít There is nominally a pastiche. But like O Brother Where Art Thou?, the previous film by Joel and Ethan Coen, it goes a step Ė a small step Ė beyond mere imitation towards a broader fusion of nostalgias. Steeped in artifacts and atmosphere, The Man Who Wasnít There is a period piece realized in the dominant cultural trends of that era, that is, the 1950s. And not just any 1950ís. Itís the Ď50s of Billy Wilder and Double Indemnity, of newly built California suburbs, of acceptable ethnic slurs and the occasional UFO sighting. Itís a time and a place where a man like Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) could afford a nice little bungalow in Santa Rosa on a barberís salary. Itís a time and a place that existed perhaps only in the movies. Above all, The Man Who Wasnít There, like all of the Coen brotherís previous films, is a moviemakerís movie, an exercise in technique, an etude. But Thorntonís performance with its unhurried, culminating force ultimately reaches a Bressonian transcendence.

Far from O Brotherís farcical muggings, The Man Who Wasnít There projects a stone-faced sense of despair, much of it emanating from Crane, who narrates the action in a defeated drawl. As the title blatantly states, Crane is a nobody, a man rendered powerless by, well, everything it seems. Life overwhelms him, or rather, has numbed him to the point where heís equally immune to pain and joy. His souse of a wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), is an accountant at a department store and is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini). This doesnít seem to bother Crane. "Itís a free country," he gathers. By day, Crane is a barber, and is a good one by all accounts, but as in his private life, he lives in the shadows of others, playing second fiddle to his brother-in-law and barbershop owner, Frank (Michael Badalucco). Ed doesnít despair about his life. He simply despairs. Referring to the hair he cuts day in and day out, he intones, "It keeps on growing." Half-bored, half-mesmerized, Crane has been hypnotized by his own indifference.

Thorntonís performance is a tricky one. Disembodied, his voice floats into the air in dense, foggy curls, much like the smoke from his cigarette which (in a telling period detail) is always lit and always in hand. Not quite a neo-noir anti-hero, Crane is existential in a walking-dead sort of way. His narration could have been lifted straight from Camus, and Thorntonís delivery achieves pitch-perfect melancholia. His performance, spare and minimal, is a melody in a minor key, one that echoes Beethovenís Moonlight Sonata, the piece that Crane hears one evening during a Christmas party and that is repeated several times throughout the movie as if Crane himself were churning it endlessly in his head. Crane is painfully skinny; a strong gust could disperse him. He seldom eats or drinks. In fact he might already be dead (as more than one critic has surmised).

When a sweaty, toupeed grifter (Jon Polito) blows into town touting a scheme he calls dry cleaning, Crane sees it as his ticket out of Santa Rosa and out of misery. He agrees to fund the grifter and devises a scheme to anonymously blackmail Big Dave. The plan works, to Craneís astonishment, and he suddenly finds himself in a position of power. But when things go wrong (and they always do in Ď50s noir), someone ends up dead and Doris mistakenly gets thrown in the slammer. Crane hires a big-shot attorney from Sacramento named Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shaloub) who immediately demands to be put up in the nicest suite in the nicest hotel in Santa Rosa. Riedenschneider is a prototypical Coen man-of-power whose maniacal self-love sucks up all the oxygen in the room. Heís a caricature and Shaloub plays him as one. In fact much of the cast seems to be in comic book mode, willingly turning themselves into easy targets for the Coensí signature condescension. McDormand, miscast but still effective, is on hand mainly for comic relief. She has a funny scene in which she shows up at an Italian-American wedding drunk and loudly proclaiming her hatred of Wops. Itís easy to see how this woman could contribute to Craneís despondency. Relating a story about their courtship, Crane tells us that Doris proposed marriage after only a few weeks. "Donít you want to get to know me?" he asks. Her reply: "Why? Does it get any better?"

While awaiting Dorisí trial, Crane gets entangled in a series of subplots, one involving a teenaged girl named Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johannsen) whom Crane takes a paternal interest in, and another involving Big Daveís wife who shows up at Craneís door one evening with a story about UFOís and a government cover-up. There are more twists and turns as well as another surprise death and before long Crane finds himself in Dorisí shoes, locked away, facing the electric chair. But the Coens donít seem overly interested in where their story ends up; itís the journey that matters to them, and like a scenic road trip in a Chevy convertible, The Man Who Wasnít There is filled with vibrant local detail. Shot in black and white by Roger Deakins, the movie has a chameleon look that ranges from evocative Hitchcock to a stunning meta-Ed Wood. Watch for a fleeting but memorable shot of shaved hairs floating in warm, soapy water, first when Crane is shaving Dorisí legs, and then again much later on, when the razor has a more ominous meaning.

Thorntonís final scenes are sad, a little scary, and they ultimately rescue the movie from its built-in coldness. Theyíre a rare display of humanity for the Coen brothers whose reputation as adolescent technicians, or junior Kubrickians, seems to have paralyzed them into making movies which engage the mind and the funny bone but little else. The Man Who Wasnít There is by no means a departure from their hyper-arranged, tightly choreographed style. But it does offer brief detours into warmer, more hospitable territory. Ed Crane might be their first fully human creation. By exempting him from their pervasive scorn, the Coen brothers have granted an act of mercy on a troubled ghost.

[rating: 3½ of 4 stars]