Joel and Ethan Coen take yet another stab at film noir with The Man Who Wasn’t There, a Cold War tragedy about a man who is as invisible to the world as he is to himself. Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a stoic Santa Rosa barber whose wife (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her married boss (James Gandolfini). After a casual encounter with petty crook Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), Ed comes to believe that his fortune lies in a burgeoning dry-cleaning business. Looking to turn tragedy into profit, Ed blackmails Big Dave for money but becomes caught in a web of suicide, murder and misplaced guilt. The Coens deftly handle the film’s many twists and turns (which, according to Ed, shape one’s life) even if they hide behind noir jargon to oft-desperate effect. The film’s supporting characters—drunks, loudmouths, fast-talkers, double-crossers—are typically annoying Coen creations though none seem particularly suffocated by the brothers’ signature contemptuousness. Big Dave’s wife, Ann Nirdlinger (Katherine Borowitz), unaware that Ed killed her husband in self-defense, is convinced aliens were responsible for Dave’s demise. Ed and Birdy (Scarlett Johansson), a piano-playing youngster with a surprising oral fixation, drive off a cliff—the Coens readily provide a graphic match between one of the car’s hubcaps and a spinning alien spacecraft. The elegance and pervasiveness of such visual flourishes gloriously evoke Cold War tensions. The Coens seem to take comfort in noir allowances though—an excuse is made for Ed’s talky narration while plenty of the film’s characters seem to take delight in the fact that they can liberally abuse such words as “gook” and “pansy.” Roger Deakins gloriously douses the film with period atmosphere while Thornton refuses to allow his character to be turned into a mere victim of the directors’ intricate bag of ironic tricks. Ed is sympathetic yet opportunistic, a man who looks to the skies for validation and liberation. He may not pay for the right crimes yet he seems to take solace in the fact that he is a man not meant for this world.
- Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
- Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
- Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, Adam Alexi-Malle, James Gandolfini, Katherine Borowitz, Jon Polito, Scarlett Johansson, Peter Schrum, Richard Jenkins, Tony Shalhoub, Ted Raimi
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