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United States, 2001
Directed By: Joel and Ethan Coen
Written By: Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Shaloub
Running Time: 116 minutes
Rated R for language and a scene of violence.
When Joel and Ethan Coen’s names pop up in conversation, most people are likely to talk about their dark masterpiece Fargo, their mind-bending comedy The Big Lebowski, or their latest Oscar winner No Country for Old Men. In a canon of films that features such masterpieces as these, a few things are bound to get lost in the shuffle. The Man Who Wasn’t There is one of those films. In fact, as of a few weeks ago, it was the only film of theirs that I hadn’t seen.
The Man Who Wasn’t There looks like film noir but tells a story that is very removed from the genre. Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) works in a barbershop, but wouldn’t consider himself a barber. He married into the business and spends his days listening to his brother-in-law Frank Raffo (the principal barber) talk off the ears of all their customers. Ed longs for a departure from his humdrum existence and when a toupee-wearing salesman walks into the barbershop talking about investing in dry-cleaning, the wave of the future, Ed immediately bites on the offer. But there’s one problem: where will the $10,000 come from to open the business?
Ed’s wife Doris (Frances McDormand) keeps the books at Nirdlinger’s, the local department store run by “Big” Dave Brewster (Tony Sopra … derr … James Gandolfini). After a remarkably uncomfortable dinner with the Brewsters, Ed begins to think that Doris and her employer may be having an affair, leading him to write an anonymous note to Brewster saying that if $10,000 isn’t placed in a designated location, Ed Crane will find out about Big Dave’s misgivings. What follows is only something Joel and Ethan Coen could muster: a drama as funny as it is serious with peculiar characters put in amusing situations with maybe just a hint of science-fiction.
Billy Bob Thornton is one of America’s most abused and underused actors (Bad Santa and Mr. Woodcock come to mind). He showed audiences in Sling Blade that he’s more than capable of tackling a dramatic role. Monster’s Ball compounded this fact. These are the dramatic performances he is known best for, but his work for the Coens in The Man Who Wasn’t Theremay be his best. His murmuring everyman narration is completely without pretension and as the audience, we’re able to understand the mystery that is Ed Crane through the look on his face as it goes through different stages of desolation. At many points in the film, Ed Crane is seen standing in a corner smoking a cigarette and trying to be invisible but Thornton imbues him with such sympathy that we can’t help but look with wonder. He may be the most sympathetic character the Coen Brothers have ever written.
Roger Deakins’ cinematography channels the classic days of film noir better than any modern-day black and white film even though it was shot in color for distribution in some European countries and consequently made black and white through a digital intermediate (see comparison shots here). The lighting is brilliant, making extensive use of shadows, shafts of light, and taking advantage of Ed Crane’s cigarette smoke whenever possible.
If you’ve spent any amount of time with the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, you’ve probably realized that they know how to write a brilliant script and shoot a memorable scene. Still, a majority of their films seem to lack a beating heart. That is why The Man Who Wasn’t There is such a refreshing change of pace for them. Their movie lacks the sentimentality of glitzy Hollywood productions, but has an earnestness about it that protects it from being aloof of pretentious. This is their most heartfelt piece of film since Raising Arizona and reveals more of their philosophy of life than much of their preceding work.
Twists and turns in The Man Who Wasn’t There provide the opportunity for a smooth-talking New York lawyer to visit the premises. His name is Freddy Riedenschnieder and Tony Shaloub of TV’s Monk plays him with class and gusto. While trying to make some sense of the increasingly weird situation Ed Crane and his wife have gotten themselves into, Riedenschnieder begins talking philosophy … Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, to be exact. He says that just the mere act of looking at something, investigating it, probing into its nature, changes it:
You can’t know the reality of what happened, or what *would’ve* happened if you hadn’t stuck [your nose in it]. So there *is* no ‘what happened.’ Not in any sense that we can grasp with our puny minds. Because our minds… our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it.
It’s an interesting thing to think about, even if it doesn’t always prove true. Many things call for deeper investigation in order to find what may be lurking under the surface, but should we bother doing that with The Man Who Wasn’t There? It would be a likely reaction for many viewers to start scratching their heads as the film closes its final act. A few things happen in the last moments that seem completely unrelated to what has gone before.
Once you look at the film as a whole, take it very literally, and realize the simple and profound statement it makes, questions should soon disappear.
After all, as Freddy Riedenschnieder would tell you: “The more you look, the less you know.”