Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a 2nd chair barber working for his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" in Santa Rosa. This man of few words doesn't express his unhappiness, even though he knows his wife Doris (Frances McDormand, "Fargo") is having an affair with her boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini, "The Last Castle"). When a business opportunity presents itself, Ed hatches a scheme to blackmail Big Dave, but his plan goes disastrously awry in "The Man Who Wasn't There."
The producing/directing/writing team of Joel and Ethan Coen ("Fargo") deliver another of their wonderfully wry homages to American filmmaking with a Hitchcockian everyman tumbling into a film noir world touched by the weirdness of David Lynch.
Ed's intrigued when a customer, Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito, "Stuart Little"), tells him that Big Dave passed on a 10K partnership proposition in a new technology - dry cleaning. Ed's shocked when Big Dave takes him into his confidence about his own blackmail scheme, although Dave doesn't acknowledge that his affair is with Ed's wife. Dave discovers the truth, and, in self defense, Ed murders Big Dave. The next day, Doris, the employee who cooked the books for Dave, is arrested for his murder and embezzlement.
The Coens' irony doesn't end there as Ed's predicaments continue to pile up, but the Coens' pacing begins to falter after Doris' trial. A subplot about Ed's friendship with the daughter (Scarlett Johansson, "Ghost World") of alcoholic town lawyer Walter Abundas (Richard Jenkins, "Snow Falling on Cedars") should have been jettisoned altogether. But while their story structure has problems, their dialogue is riotously witty ('You're an enthusiast" Birdy tells withdrawn Ed) and jarringly un-PC ('The dry cleaning pansy skipped town,' 'vaporized like the NIPs at Nagasaki').
The Cannes-winning direction (credited to Joel) is also brilliant, from the way Ed's tableau-like stillness is emphasized by the constant motion all around him to the elegance of foreshadowing an electric chair scene with Ed shaving his wife's legs while she soaks in the tub.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins ("Fargo") uses a low contrast style of black and white, recalling the bright noir of the final scenes of "The Postman Always Rings Twice," occasionally going for more extreme shadow to emphasize character development.
Billy Bob Thornton gives an Academy award worthy performance with a character who barely speaks outside of his perfectly delivered narration. His economy of movement can alternately make him appear somber or bring a laugh. Tony Shalhoub ("Thirteen Ghosts") is hilarious as hot-shot lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider, who spits out words like bullets. Katherine Borowitz ("Illuminata") brings the spacy acting style seen in so many Lynch films to department store heiress Ann Nirdlinger, who believes a UFO sighting caused the government to kill her husband, Big Dave. Richard Jenkins is notable in a small role that helps define the small town Americana of Santa Rosa.
While "The Man Who Wasn't There" is great in so many aspects, it's severely compromised by its uneven second half. Still, the great bits make it all worthwhile.
Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) works the number-two chair for his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco) in Guzzi's Barber Shop. He is resigned to his unhappy marriage with his unaffectionate, hard-drinking wife Doris (Frances McDormand) and must contend with her suspected infidelity. When a pushy entrepreneur (Jon Polito) offers him a chance to get into a fledgling business opportunity, Ed decides to blackmail his wife's lover, to an unexpected and tragic outcome, in "The Man Who Wasn't There."
Joel and Ethan Coen, the writer/director/producer team who reinvented film noir with their debut, "Blood Simple," revisit the genre with there latest oeuvre that crosses their own "Barton Fink" with the darker films of David Lynch. The brothers visit the noir side of filmmaking once again with their tale about Ed Crane, a minimalist kind of guy who talks little, smokes a lot and cuts hair for a living. He is not happy with his lot but he doesn't really know what to do to pull himself out of his self-imposed rut. Furthermore, his flashy dressing wife, Doris, may be having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini), the owner of Nirdlinger's Department Store.
One day, at closing time, a strange little man named Creighton Tolliver (Polito) walks into the shop looking to get a haircut. The owner, Frank, wants to shut down and go home, but Ed agrees to stay late to do the job. Tolliver peaks Ed's interest when he tells him about a brand new business opportunity - dry cleaning - that is about to storm the country. All Ed needs to do is come up with the cash, $10000, and they will split the profits 50/50. This sparks a plan, in the taciturn barber's mind, to secretly blackmail the money from Big Dave, invest in the business and start a new, successful life. But, the best-laid plans often go awry and the Coen boys bring us on a downward spiral that culminates in murder and tragedy.
The Coen brothers know how to direct actors, but it also helps that they hire the best. Billy Bob Thornton is outstanding as the almost mute Ed Crane, though as the film's narrator, Ed has a lot to say and the voice over helps to flesh out his character by putting you directly into his mind. It is really a combo performance and Thornton creates one of the most distinctive characters in film this year. The script, by the Coens, loses its way in the last third and meanders through scenes that require a mental changing of gears as it pulls away from Ed and, in the end, introduces an off-beat aliens on Earth subplot that is funky but out of kilter with the main story.
Supporting this central character is a band of seasoned acting vets. Joel Coen's spouse, Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand, gives a tight performance as Ed's hard-as-nails wife, Doris. She follows her own agenda and becomes an unwitting tragic figure because of circumstance. James Gandolfini plays Big Dave as a blustery businessman who wants those around him think that he is more - brave, smart, sophisticated - than he really is. Tony Shalhoub steals the show as Doris's fast-talking city-slicker lawyer, Freddy Riedenschneider, whose motto is "I litigate. I don't capitulate." Jon Polito gives a sleazy, snake oil salesman sheen to his Creighton Tolliver, the man who unknowingly plants the seed of ambition in Ed's mind that leads to tragedy for all. Michael Badalucco, so outrageous as Baby Face Nelson in the Coens's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is small town barber personified as Doris's brother and Ed's employer. Young Scarlett Johansson is oddly cast as the daughter of Ed's lawyer (Richard Jenkins) as she inexplicably makes Ed a lewd, shocking offer.
The black and white photography (actually, color negative film processed in B&W) by Coen brothers favorite Roger Deacons is evenly lit during most sequences, but is punctuated, at times, with shots in high contrast of light and shadow - Big Dave confronting Ed or Freddy discussing the case in a prison interview room - giving these shots a distinctive noir look. The use of the black and white palette gives a perfect period cast to the film, making it feel as if it were shot in its 1949 time frame. Production design by another Coen collaborator, Dennis Gassner, perfectly complements the photographic look by recreating the post-war town of Santa Rosa, California, a setting last used in Alfred Hitchcock's 1943 classic "Shadow of a Doubt." Additionally, costumes by another Coen crony, Mary Zophres, completes the stylish and accurate look of middle America in the 40's.It's obvious this creative team is comfortable working together.
The Coen brothers don't always produce gems in their filmmaking endeavors but their movies are always interesting. Their best work, "Fargo," is a brilliant combination of terrific acting, a solid screenplay, outstanding techs and the deft directing/producing hands of Joel and Ethan. Other works, like "Barton Fink" and "The Hudsucker Proxy," are less compelling though still the solid efforts of a pair of talented individuals. "The Man Who Wasn't There" isn't the hands-down masterpiece of "Fargo," but it certainly is one of their better flicks to date and is a wonderful entry into the pantheon of modern film noir. I give it a B+.
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