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The Man Who Wasn't There

I was never a big Coen brothers fan. Sure, I laughed at Raising Arizona, marveled at the snowy landscape and fantastic acting in Fargo, and enjoyed the twisted take on gangster life in Miller's Crossing. But the Coens' not-so-subtle contempt for humanity and delight in scoffing at our foibles always put me off. That is, until last year's O Brother, Where Art Thou? That marvelous musical starring George Clooney seemed to signal a turn in their approach. Yes, people were still stupid (think of Tim Blake Nelson' character or the campaign workers), but there was also something to admire in their quest for a better life.

Enter Ed Crane (played by Billy Bob Thornton), the protagonist in the Coen brothers' latest feature, The Man Who Wasn't There. He, too, isn't the brightest bulb in the house, but that darkened center stems from a lack of options rather than a lack of intelligence. He's a barber in a small town in the late 1940s. He never expected to be a barber and has only taken the job because his brother-in-law owns the shop, and it's something Ed can do.  In a more liberated time, Ed might've stayed home and been a house-husband while his wife Doris (Frances McDormand) earned the money as the bookkeeper at a local department store. But this is not a more liberated time, and Ed is certainly not a more liberated man.

His relationship with Doris consists of her talking about her day at the store and her war-hero boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini). Though he suspects she and Big Dave are having an affair, Ed has neither the power nor even the inclination to stop it. Instead, he sits silently nearby while Doris takes a bath and reads the paper, ready to shave her legs whenever she might ask him.

Ed's life (and prospects) change one day, however, when Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) walks into the barber shop. Tolliver is trying to raise some capital so he can start a dry-cleaning business. Ed's brother-in-law Frank isn't interested, but something about owning something of his own piques Ed's interest and he agrees to a meeting. The catch is that he has to invest $10,000, and Ed certainly doesn't have that sort of cash. Not willing to give up, though, he comes up with an idea to blackmail Big Dave about the affair.

Ahhh yes. It's a return to form(ula) for the Coen brothers. After an entertaining detour with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Ethan and Joel Coen are back to the simple-man-gets-in-over-his-head format. Like William H. Macy in Fargo or Nicolas Cage in Raising Arizona, Thornton's character isn't cut out for a life of crime and soon the blackmail plot has turned into something much worse. Fast-talking lawyers and lingo-spouting cops get involved, and Ed Crane struggles to stay above it all.

Shot in gorgeous black and white, The Man Who Wasn't There is a fascinating take on the film noir genre. With the Coen's trademark snarkiness, the movie is significantly funnier than most noirs. Early in the film, Ed narrates, "Doris and I went to church once a week . . . usually Tuesdays," and we suddenly realize Doris is playing bingo while Ed watches. Later, there's a terrifically funny scene when the cops come for Ed and yet are too embarrassed to tell him what's going on, so they resort to blabbering various cop phrases.

Balancing out the comedy is Billy Bob Thornton's rock-solid performance. Though his character is largely ignored by those around him (so much so that everyone seems to forget his name), Ed Crane has a gravity that makes him extremely compelling. I'm not usually a fan of voice-overs, but Thornton (Sling Blade) delivers his lines with such exquisite simplicity that it forms the foundation for the movie.

This gravity finds its visual counterpart in Roger Deakins's fantastic cinematography. Stripping the image to its barest essentials--black, white, and some grays--Deakins not only evokes the post-war era but also endues the film with a purity usually absent from crime pics. This is further heightened in three pivotal scenes: Ed's first meeting with Big Dave on his front porch, a scene where Ed finds a young teenager named Birdy (Scarlett Johansson) as she plays the piano, and Ed's conversation with a lawyer in jail (don't worry, I'm not giving anything away). Each of these moments are critical as Ed tries to orient his moral compass, and Deakins emphasizes it by using high-contrast lighting which reduces the image to beautiful black-and-white.

Given O Brother's emphasis on religious themes, particularly that of baptism, it's tempting to see Ed's moral quandary in spiritual terms. Is it reading too much into it that his scheme involves setting up a dry cleaning shop? A cleaning agent that doesn't use water seems the very antithesis of the mighty flood that sweeps the devil away at the end of O Brother. Or maybe it's just dry cleaning.

The supporting cast in The Man Who Wasn't There fulfills its job and more. McDormand (Fargo) finds the right mix of strength and vulnerability in the role of a wife trying to find something better in her life. Gandolfini (The Sopranos) and Polito (Miller's Crossing) are great as blustery businessmen on the make. And Scarlett Johansson (The Horse Whisperer) is striking as a young woman who seems to understand Ed better than he does himself.

As with every Coen brothers' movie, the direction in The Man Who Wasn't There is both conspicuous and effective. The heavy use of interior shots gives the film a nice claustrophobic feel endemic to the great noir films of the '50s. And the original score by Carter Burwell (another Coen regular) sets the mood nicely.

While The Man Who Wasn't There can't measure up to the charm of O Brother, it nonetheless is both an entertaining and thought-provoking portrait. 

J. Robert Parks 10/31/2001

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