It is a well-known fact that the Coen Brothers love the noir genre. Many of their films such as Miller’s Crossing are updates of or homages to the genre, and even the comedic brilliance of The Big Lebowski was based in part on a Raymond Chandler novel. Of late, their movies have become more accessible (although never mainstream) with varying degrees of success (1998’s The Big Lebowski was stunning, 2000’s Oh Brother Where Art Thou? was patchy). In this context, The Man Who Wasn’t There could be interpreted as an attempt to return to their core audience.
Set in the 1940’s, it is noir-ish in that it is shot entirely in black and white, and concerns crime to a certain extent, but that is not to give the impression that it is wall-to-wall sharp-suited gangsters and seductive femme fatales, because that is the furthest thing in the world from the truth.
The Man Who Wasn’t There tells the story of a laconic barber called Ed Crane (played by Billy Bob Thornton) whose wife (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss. One day a man walks into his shop with a revolutionary idea of ‘Dry Cleaning’. It could make millions if he only had financial backing. So Ed blackmails his wife’s boss so as to raise the money.
From here, misfortune after misfortune after misfortune follows. Death, destitution, the crushing of hopes and dreams. In the hands of a lesser director, this could have been made into a tragedy, with mournful music and wailing and numerous stunned reaction shots. But instead it’s all understated and subtle, and in a movie world where every hackneyed trick and effect is brought out to force you to react, it is so wonderfully refreshing.
Despite all this, there is humour, but it is wry and gentle and again, understated (an example being when Crane asks his wife if they should get to know each other better marrying, she replies ‘’Why, does it get better?’’).
It is also one of the best movies the Coen Brothers have ever made, and without a doubt the best movie I have seen released this year. The camera-work is stunning, the plot loose without being tangential, and the script brilliant.
Billy Bob Thornton is perfect as Ed. While practically every other character is over-bearingly verbose, trying to fill the silence with floods of words which don’t need saying, Thornton remains practically mute, and at every turn we can sense the touching, exquisite discomfort of a quiet, possibly inarticulate man adrift in a world of ‘Gabbers’, as he calls them.
Despite the sadness of the ending, you leave with a profound sense of peace, and it was disorientating in a way to leave this film and return to a loud, colourful outside world.
Once again the Coen Brothers have produced an anachronism, a movie touching without being schmaltzy, funny without being ironic, poignant without being overbearing, and it is practically perfect in every way. Essential.
9Tom Brown's Score