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netribution > features > reviews > The Man Who Wasn't There

by Jonathan Key | October 5th, 2001

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Directed by Joel Coen.
Produced by Ethan Coen.
Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.
Photographed by Roger Deakins.
Edited by Roderick Jaynes and Tricia Cooke.

Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand.

The Coen brothers continue their astonishing output of witty, stylish pastiches with The Man Who Wasn’t There, a story of small-town blackmail and double-cross. This time, the brothers have borrowed the look and motifs of 40’s American film noir, setting the film in Northern California in 1949. Bored barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) finds that his wife’s infidelity gives him the opportunity for a little blackmail. As in 1996’s Fargo, however, it all goes horribly wrong. But although the movie initially feels like The Postman Always Rings Twice or Hitchcock’s The Shadow of a Doubt, we soon find ourselves in territory occupied only by the literate, eccentric Coens. The typical Coen mix of noir, weird humour and whimsy means that the movie, even if less commercial than the outstanding Fargo, will more than please their many admirers.

The first half of the film is the more traditional, slowly revealing dark passions in a claustrophobically small community. In the meantime, the elliptical and witty dialogue carries the film for long stretches that might otherwise leave the audience frustrated. Then, abruptly, the story explodes in a flurry of plot twists and leftfield ideas. Through it all, Ed’s commentary on his growing identity crisis gives the impression of a film with something to say, even if it never really gets it said.

The Coens, as ever, have made a film that continually surprises but still remains true to an underlying concept. In this case, it’s the idea of the laconic noir hero taken to absurd extremes. Thornton’s wonderfully passive Ed barely seems to communicate with anyone, but with twisted logic he’s the film’s narrator. The man who’s barely there is our guide through a maddeningly oblique world of shadows. The cleverness of the film is the way in which it will suddenly remind you that the town full of cheats and liars is a perfectly ordinary place.

Ed is repeatedly asked, "What kind of man are you?" and the answer seems to be that he is simply modern man, always on the outside looking in. The film offers some serious observations, particularly on the ‘modern’ condition of alienation, but it’s hard to take it seriously. This is partly because it tends to play Ed’s distance from others for laughs – and some good ones at that – but mostly because his blankness is too effective to pack any genuine emotional weight.

In a film that is never less than interesting, we do end up accepting the wild twists and peculiarities that the Coens throw at us. But this is also its main problem. We accept the injustices with the same indifference that Ed shows all through his troubles, when the only meaningful response would be rage and defiance.

Overall: Another wonderful, if flawed, jewel from the Coens – The Film That Wasn’t Quite All There

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