The Man Who Wasn't There

Directed by Joel Coen
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Michael Badalucco, Tony Shalhoub, Scarlett Johansson.
MPAA Rating: R for a scene of violence.

Review by Evelyn Gildrie-Voyles <>
December 17, 2001

At the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, Joel Coen and David Lynch tied for the director's award. Which just illustrates how much movie reviewing and rewarding is all a matter of opinion. While The Man Who Wasn't There isn't as bad as Mullholland Drive, it is by far the worst Coen film I have seen (I've seem all of them but Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing). Of course, being the worst Coen film makes it a passable film that might be worth seeing in the movie theater and definitely worth renting for the glorious acting and cinematography; just don't expect to be stimulated much intellectually or emotionally. The film is just pretty and skillful but there is nothing behind the skill.

The movie was written by Joel and Ethan Coen and inspired by the pulp fiction stories of John Cain (who wrote the stories that the famous noirs Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice were based on). Billy Bob Thornton stars as Ed Crane, a reluctant barber in 1949 small-town California. Crane is a quiet man who just sort of falls into life. Like many of John Cain's protagonists, he makes one mistake and then suffers the consequences for the rest of the story. Crane decides to blackmail his wife's boss in order to raise $10,000 for a dry cleaning scheme. The story has a lot of noirish twists and turns -- betrayals, murder, blackmail, reversals of fortune, etc., and would probably make a very entertaining noir. Unfortunately, the Coen's concentrated instead on being clinical, distant and clever rather than establishing any feeling for the characters or letting the characters have any wit or depth of their own.

The actors are all brilliant but seem stranded in a film that doesn't support their efforts. Billy Bob Thornton has a voice that I would gladly listen to forever. Which is good, because he narrates the entire film, which means the audience listens to Thornton for about two hours straight. Thornton also has a great face, full of crags and lines, so it is not boring to just watch him sit for minutes at a time doing nothing but staring into the distance or smoking. If any other actor played Crane, the film would be unbearable.

Frances McDormand as Crane's adulterous wife and James Gandolfini as Mrs. Crane's boss and lover are wasted. McDormand looks great and would make an excellent forties ice queen (think Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity) or wise-cracking dame (think Lauren Bacall in anything). Instead she is more a plot device than a character. McDormand does not work enough and is far too talented to be wasted in such crap parts. Gandolfini also deserves more screen time. His role also has the potential to really drive scenes, but he is abandoned early in the film.

Many of the big paper/magazine critics have been salivating over how good Tony Shalhoub is as Crane's slick city lawyer, and he is marvelous, but mostly he is shot well. Cinematographer Roger Deakins reserves all the nifty shadow and light effects for Shalhoub's speeches. For some reason, the lawyer's ramblings on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle are the most visually interesting scenes in the movie.

My favorite performances of the film were given by seasoned bit part actors in tiny but amusing roles: Katherine Borowitz as Big Dave's rich, repressed wife and Christopher Kriesa and Brian Haley as two police officers. The police officers get the best dialogue in the film, and despite their limited screen time, they are also the only characters besides Crane that seem like people rather than objects that have been carved to look like stock noir types -- but not allowed to act like the noir characters they resemble.

The film looks gorgeous and all the noir stock visuals are there, but they aren't used at times that build tension or enhance the feel of the scene. Instead they are used during the endless philosophizing that slows down the pace. This at least makes those scenes neat to watch even if they completely disrupt the flow of the action.

Overall, the film moved too slowly for my interest to be maintained. I completely stopped caring about what happened at about the third plot twist (and plenty more twists remained). No character was interesting or human enough for me to care whether they lived or died. The film also used blackouts to show time lapses, so I kept thinking the film was over. There were several possible endings all of which would have left me liking the film better than the ending that actually happened. It wasn't that the ending was stupid, but that it came far too late. My mind had already left the theatre and only a shell remained to watch the credits finally roll.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

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