The Man Who Wasn’t There
After a couple of frisky larks — the stoner rhapsody The Big Lebowski and the yodelling fable O Brother, Where Art Thou? — Joel and Ethan Coen are back cruising the streets of film noir mood and menace in The Man Who Wasn’t There. This will likely be the only Coen film ever to share its title with a 3-D sex comedy, and I have no doubt that the Coens, whose roots are in ’80s grindhouse (Joel helped edit Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead), knew about the 1983 film with Steve Guttenberg as an invisible man visiting, among other places, a girls’ shower room. So the title is prankish and deliberately pulpy; the film’s style itself is austere and crisp (Roger Deakins did the black-and-white photography), but the Coens are still jokers at heart, and the movie is a joke of the driest, most deadpan kind.
The deadpan starts with Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane, a barber who seems spiritually immobilized, and you quickly understand why the Coens cast Thornton — he has the fatalistic slouch of a Bogart or a Mitchum, and for the first time here he has a more promising camera face than his wife’s.¹ Ed’s thoroughgoing quietude in any situation is good for uneasy laughs, and we also hear his narration, which does not sound as if he’s telling this story at poolside in the Bahamas. Thornton looks and speaks uncannily like a B-movie actor circa 1949 (when the film is set), except it’s an A-movie performance — Thornton does wonders within the tabula rasa of words and gestures he’s limited to.
Ed wants to be more than a barber, but doesn’t know how; he has resigned himself to what he has come to see as an unexciting life, with an unexciting wife, Doris (Coen staple Frances McDormand, who enjoys one of the funnier drunken scenes on film). When an oily hustler (Jon Polito, who can always be counted on to add some oil to a Coen film) offers to bring Ed in on a get-rich-quick scheme involving dry cleaning — if Ed will just kick in $10,000 — Ed accepts, then goes about figuring out how to get the money. As luck would have it, Doris is cheating on him with Big Dave (James Gandolfini, filling John Goodman’s usual role), her boss; Ed decides to blackmail Big Dave. Of course, it’s far from that simple.
As I’ve said before, noir is not about plot twists so much as a general doomed-from-birth attitude solidified by the plot twists, which act as one door after another slamming shut behind our hero until he’s trapped by his own animal desperation. The Man Who Wasn’t There is awfully short on animal desperation, or animal anything, which is part of the Coens’ sly up-ending of the genre. Ed has no inner life, no passion; the closest he comes to the latter is his fondness for a young girl (Scarlett Johansson) who plays piano — he takes an interest in her talent and thinks there’s a career in it for her. But even then he’s such a lukewarm cod that when the girl calls him an “enthusiast,” the very idea of him being enthused gets one of the script’s weirdest laughs.
In true Coen form, the following things happen: blood flows ostentatiously; a large man screams at the camera (a favorite Coen visual); said camera fixates on a particular action (a woman’s leg being shaved) only to bring it out again later for an ironic curtain call; and once again, the pursuit of money brings only damnation. The Coens give us heroes with reasonable enough goals, who resort to unreasonable tactics to achieve them; part of the comedy of their work is that the consequences are so out of proportion to the characters’ basic intent, and this is why the Coens have often been labelled wanton boys pulling the wings off flies.
Here, at least, the absurdist cruelty has context; as Ed slumps through one misfortune after another, he becomes a walking commentary on an entire genre. The Man Who Wasn’t There may not be as immediately engaging as the Coens’ other movies — it has few fanciful “Coen moments” and will be the least likely film in the portfolio to be watched and cackled over repeatedly — but it’s still a gorgeous piece of work, as different from the Coens’ other films as the other films are from each other. Even a mere Coen exercise in style is worthwhile, because they not only have style, they understand it.
¹That wife, at the time, was Angelina Jolie.