The Man Who Wasn’t There

The Coen Brother’s latest film “The Man Who Wasn’t There” reminded me of the theory about how a butterfly flapping its wings in the rain forest can cause a hurricane halfway around the world. Taking their cue from such great film noir masterpieces as “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” the Coen Brothers have created their own modern day masterpiece.

“The Man Who Wasn’t There” so perfectly captures the spirit of classic film noir that if it weren’t for the recognizable stars, you would swear the film was the real McCoy. Shot in striking black and white by the brilliant Roger Deakins, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” draws you in with its hypnotic images, shady characters, and constant awareness that not all is what it seems.

Nothing much happens in the small, post WWII California town of Santa Rosa. Just a couple of brush strokes away from becoming a Norman Rockwell painting, Santa Rosa has a moderate sized department store, an upscale hotel, and a three-chair barber shop, even though the town only has two barbers.

They are talkative Frank (Michael Badalucco), the owner, who inherited the shop from his parents, who spent thirty years paying it off. Second chair is manned by quiet Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), who is married to Frank’s sister Doris (Frances McDormand), bookkeeper at Nirdlinger’s Department Store.

Nothing much happens in Santa Rosa, that is until entrepreneur Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) winds up in Ed’s chair after closing hours. In town to raise capital to start a chain of dry cleaners (a radical idea back in 1949), Tolliver is upset that his investor has pulled out at the last minute.

Upon learning more, and tired of cutting hair for a living, Ed agrees to help Tolliver raise the seed money. That means blackmailing Doris’ boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini), whom he suspects of having an affair with his wife. For Ed, it’s a win-win situation. Not only does he get the money, but he gets even with Big Dave, who depends on the kindness and compassion of his trusting wife Ann (Katherine Borowitz), who owns the store.

Funny how one little blackmail note can turn someone’s life upside down. Like the casual conversation in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train” that leads to murder, Ed’s note creates all sorts of complications. Someone kills Big Dave, and Doris is charged with the murder. The harder Ed tries to clear Doris, the worse things get. Family lawyer Walter Abundas (Richard Jenkins) insists Ed hire expensive big city lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), but even he is helpless to stop the landslide created by Ed.

The screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen populates the small town with all sorts of interesting characters, including Scarlett Johansson as the piano playing daughter of Abundas, whose talent and beauty inspire Ed to take her under his wing, and Katherine Borowitz as Big Dave’s wife, who suspects that her husband’s death had something to do with bright lights in the sky.

The Coen Brothers peg the genre. Their use of narration, shadows and light and tight cutting show that they have done their homework. All great film noir takes place in a macrocosm, be it a small town, on a train or a backroom hideout. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” takes place in a small town, but we only see pieces of it. The barber shop. The hotel. The courtroom. The prison.

The filmmakers never let us venture beyond the camera’s reach. They want us to feel as trapped as the characters. The more we learn about them, the less we like them.

When we first meet Ed, he seems like a pretty decent guy. He may not like his job, but it pays the bills, and he takes pride in his duties. Ed doesn’t speak much. What little we learn about him is told to us through voice-over narration.

I’ve always liked Billy Bob Thornton as an actor, and his performance here is nothing short of remarkable. Hiding under a well-groomed rug (ironic since he’s playing a barber) and lifeless, steel eyes, Thornton delivers a cold, calculated performance that cautiously conceals Ed’s true intentions.

We’re never sure what he’s going to do, and it’s to the credit of Thornton and the writers that they’re able to sustain this without giving anything away. McDormand has some delicious moments as a woman who obviously has to look elsewhere for companionship, even though we’re never sure until later in the film what she’s capable of. The wonderful James Gandolfini, who deserves an Oscar nomination for his work in “The Mexican,” displays just the right amount of rage and vulnerability as Big Dave.

The rest of the cast, especially Johansson as a 1940’s “Lolita” and Tony Shalhoub as the attorney who demands the best because he deserves it, are exceptional. There isn’t one bad performance in the film. Under the director of Joel Cohen, the cast works together as a well oiled machine. There isn’t one hair out of place.

Deakins, who has been the Coen Brothers lifeblood behind the camera, does a brilliant job of recreating the look and feel of the era, while production designer Dennis Gassner has transformed various modern day Southern California locales into a quaint, nostalgic 1940’s California hamlet. Carter Burwell, another longtime collaborator, infuses the soundtrack with a score that underscores the film’s intensity.

I’ve been a Coen Brothers fans since “Blood Simple,” and with each and every picture, that admiration grows. Next to “Miller’s Crossing,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is probably their most straightforward piece of nostalgia. There are a couple of off-beat “Barton Fink” type moments in the film, but they only enhance what emerges as one of the best films of 2001.


Billy Bob Thornton is razor sharp in Coen’s perfect noir


Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Michael Badalucco, Scarlett Johansson, Jon Polito, Richard Jenkins, Tony Shalhoub. Directed by Joel Coen. Rated R. 116 Minutes


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