A DISSATISFIED BARBER IN THE 1940S DECIDES TO BLACKMAIL HIS WIFE'S LOVER IN ORDER TO GET STARTUP CAPITAL FOR A NEW DRY CLEANING BUSINESS. THE SCHEME BEGINS TO UNRAVEL AND, IN THE END, EVERYONE GETS WHAT'S COMING TO THEM.
"There's a lot of talk about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle here, which would seem out of place, quantum mechanics and cinema not being usual bedfellows. But the Coen Bros., odd boys that they are, fit thing together nicely. And Heisenberg's theory, as illustrated here by a lawyer named Freddy Riedenschneider (and how come it's taken so long for the Coens to put the deliciously warped Tony Shalhoub in a movie? He chews scenery like it was a dinner roll, and nearly runs off with the film's second half) neatly encapsulates the best way to watch a Coen Bros. film: the more you look at their movies, the less you're bound to understand them. A Coen flick is mostly a visceral experience, not to be taken too seriously intellectually, no matter how much you think you should."The Man Who Wasn't There" begins with a luscious black and white shot of a... barber's pole! It's a glorious piece of Americana, but also a symbol of the intertwining of good and evil to follow. Ed Crane, second chair barber, is played by Billy Bob Thornton. His wrinkled puss and slick hairdo are rendered in caricature by the crisp cinematography of Coen stalwart Roger Deakins. Cigarette constantly ago, Thornton is a picture of immobility, more suited to still photography than motion pictures. He's a man of little ambition, stuck in a loveless marriage, and beset from all sides by yammer mouths and chatterboxes. Thornton, an actor who usually relies on a symphony of tics and eccentricities to construct his characters, does none of that here. He remains calm and poised, barely even using his distinctive voice, except in the ever-present narration. The effect is astonishing. Just like when Rob Reiner strapped the overly physical James Caan to the bed in "Misery", not allowing Thornton to work to his strengths makes him find the character in other, more surprising, ways. This is coupled with the bonus effect of keeping the audience on their toes, as they know that all that kinetic energy can bounce up at any moment. Thornton is in every scene here, and he carries the picture quite easily on his slim shoulders.The rest of the cast, as is the case in any Coen Bros. film, is wildly eccentric and spot-on. Made up of a mixture of the Coens' stock company and some game newcomers, they all deliver fine performances. Frances McDormand (Mrs. Joel Coen) leads the group of Coen regulars. She is, as always, a wonder to watch. Her character, Mrs. Doris Crane, was lacking in redeeming qualities, but McDormand is such a ball of mesmerizing energy that you tend to forget that she's playing such a hateful woman. Jon Polito is good as usual playing an effete entrepreneur looking to hook an investor for a new invention called "dry cleaning". And Michael Badalucco plays Ed's annoying brother-in-law/employer, a motor mouth who's less annoying here than in the other roles I've seen him in.The newcomers, besides Thornton, are lead by James Gandolfini, TV's Tony Soprano, as Big Dave Brewster, Doris' boss and paramour. Big Dave is little more than a device here, but Gandolfini is such an overwhelming and charismatic presence, he manages to create something enthralling out of nothing. Scarlett Johansson gets to be the innocent Lolita pursued by an older man, a role she conceded to Thora Birch in her other film role this year, "Ghost World". Ed and Birdy's relationship is handled with less tact than the similar situation was in that fine film, but it is still within the boundaries of good taste (uh, for the most part anyway). Also, it allows for repeated playings of Beethoven's 'Moonlight Sonata' (hardly a film noir staple, that!). And it's worth mentioning again the fine work of the underused Tony Shalhoub. He gets one lengthy speech in an intensely lit jail room that's a wonder to watch, for not only his acting but also the interaction between character and lighting."The Man Who Wasn't There" is not as crowd pleasing as the Coens' biggest hit, last year's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (which was hurled into the zeitgeist by "A Man of Constant Sorrow"). Those of you in the general population, please don't expect to leave the theatre humming a catchy tune like you did then. Those of you in the Coen Bros. Army will certainly get a kick out of this flick. There are moments of levity here, all played remarkably straight (my favourite: a half-drunk lawyer, who's constantly falling asleep while giving a client advice), but also moments of extreme Coen-style oddness. The movie would have ended a half-hour before it did in the hands of other directors, but the Coens go one step further, and give us a last half hour that will have you scratching your head even while grinning madly. Just don't get too caught up in trying to figure out what it all means, or you're bound to ruin it."
Another winner from the Coen Brothers
Charlotte Vale-Allen | CT USA | 05/23/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Here's a film that falls into the category of "classic noir," all but perfectly presented by the Brothers who are, in many ways, reinventing the movie. With stunning black-and-white cinematography and splendid performances by Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand (who, arguably, is one of the best actresses anywhere), the voiceover narrative of the unsmiling "hero" of the piece recounts the events leading up to his demise.There is so much to like about this film: its faithful adherence to the exploration of small lives that become enlarged as a result of haphazard circumstance; its beautifully moody lighting and crisp images--where shadow has as much significance as light; and an overall evenness of tone that never for a moment hits a sour note.Thornton, as the never-smiling barber with an acceptable life that is bereft of humor, of love, and of any viable friendship, gives a remarkably controlled performance that is perfectly matched by McDormand's barely contained appetite for love, for humor, for life, for something beyond the inertia of her marriage (to Thornton.) This is a film in which what goes unstated has as much power as what is; it also has what used to be referred to as a "sting in the tail" at the end.Nothing can be anticipated in this film; the brothers exercise such great control over the material that even when the viewer thinks s/he knows what's coming, the surprise is there in the ironic ending.A fine example of top-rate film-making, not to be missed."
Mike Stone | 03/06/2002
(4 out of 5 stars)
"After the crowd-pleasing knockabout comedy of the 30s-set "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" - a cheery, New Deal proposition which played out like "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang" under the direction of the Keystone Kops - the new Coen brothers movie adopts the grimly fatalistic tone of a 50s noir thriller, its brooding shadows cast by both the Second World War and the resulting paranoias. If "O Brother" was the "before" photo of an America singing its way out of a Depression, then "The Man Who Wasn't There" is the snapshot labelled "after". It's cold and dark, and is certain to put off as many visitors to the Coens' world as "O Brother" attracted.Thornton, his nicotine-stained voiceover containing enough tar to merit a Government health warning, is Ed Crane, a small-town barber forever sweeping up after those around him. The most passive of active smokers, Crane barely moves for himself until the one false move he makes to kill off his wife's lover and set off a chain of events leading to his own demise; it doesn't come as too much of a surprise when this hero goes out not in a hail of bullets, but sitting down to die.One of the great joys of a Coen movie is that they cast, right down to the minor roles, people who can act to the extent that it's a pleasure to spend every moment of a longish film in the same room as them. (Even in the non-speaking roles, the brothers cast fascinating faces.) "The Man Who Wasn't There" offers - aside from the more-than-capable Thornton, McDormand and Gandolfini in the lead roles - a supporting cast including Tony Shalhoub as a preening peacock of a lawyer, Jon Polito as the gay dry-cleaning entrepreneur who sets the story in (so far as one could call it) motion, and Michael Badalucco as Crane's verbose brother-in-law, getting the movie's most obvious, "O Brother"-style laughs in riding around on the back of pigs and winning pie-eating contests for the benefit of his young cousins.Otherwise, the humour is muted and deadpan, existing in throwaway asides: this is a small town whose hotel, we learn, names its suites after operas. The film's funniest lines are those ascribed to other characters passing (unintentional) comment on the motionless hero: "Is he awake?," asks a physician at Crane's bedside, just after a road accident sparked by a young girl's assertion that the emotionless Ed is actually "an enthusiast".The major talking point may be the look of the film. Whatever the ins and outs of the technical process whereby the brothers arrived at this quality of film stock, Director of Photography Roger Deakins here has access to aesthetically purer blacks and whites than any seen on the screen in the last forty years, and he makes notable use of the tonal palette this facilitates: you get a depth of field which allows an amazing grasp of the distance between a veil and a woman's face, or of the detail apparent when Ed submerges his wife's razor in her bath water, shaking hundreds of microscopic hairs to the bottom of the tub.This sense of depth also applies to some of the themes apparent in the writing. Characterised by his lawyer as "the modern man", Crane is often framed in one-man-against-the-mass shots, walking against the flow of the crowd. This, I think, ties into the late 40s/paranoid 50s idea of "a modern man" as someone destined only to stand still - or, perhaps more expressively, doomed to do his own thing - while everyone else, their collective stock raised by the prosperity of the post-War boom years, gets rich quick around him. This was a period in which, if the McCarthyites didn't get you, the Commies would; if the Commies didn't get you, the A-bomb would; and if the A-bomb didn't get you, the Roswell aliens certainly would, so Ed's fundamental fatalism is perhaps entirely understandable. More importantly, "the modern man", in the Coens' eyes, is a sensitive type - Crane bemoans the fate of chopped hair - with no obvious outlet for what he's taken from life's hard knocks until it's just too late; his tentative and trembling relationship with a young pianist (Johansson) is exactly the sort of relationship the doomed hero of a 50s thriller would take up in the hope, for him as for us, of a last-reel redemption which invariably won't follow.This idea of a hero unable - or unwilling - to do anything about his plight, and the Coens' trademark emotional reticence about such plights, means the film won't be for all tastes, but there's something undeniably compelling about the manner in which the filmmakers have humanised the old "what if a tree falls in a forest" riddle and wrestle with the resulting melancholy conundrum that haunts "The Man Who Wasn't There": what happens when a man who talks to nobody has nobody left to talk to?"
Previous reviewer is a Jackass.
Charlotte Vale-Allen | 11/18/2002
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I am typically too lazy to write, however the previous reviewer stirred me enough to demand a response. If you're interested in fast moving color films with stereotyped performances whose sole purpose is entertainment, then stick with Spielberg. I find it amazing that someone with such a poor understanding of film dares comment on it.
If you have an interest in film as an expressive medium and as a reflection of an individual's (or brothers') creative aspirations, you will perhaps at least appreciate the film. Furthermore, the cinematography is absolutely phenomenal, among the best I have ever seen (I dare rank it along side 'Last Year At Marienbad' in this respect).
This is the best Coen Bros. and among the best releases in the past several years."
Jack M. Walter | Baltimore, MD | 02/09/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This may be the best Cohn brothers' movie yet. Stellar performances by all, and a plot that contains no loose ends adds up to a great nouveau film-noir flick that shows what could happen when an unsuspecting man starts to travel down the wrong road. The ending is almost transcendant. This is the kind of movie Albert Camus might have made if her were a film writer and director."