The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for a scene of violence
Running Time: 116 min.
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Michael Badalucco
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Review published June 13, 2001
In my opinion a return to form for the Coen brothers, after my two least favorite films in their careers, The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou. The Man Who Wasn't There is the Coen homage to the great film noir films of the 40s Hollywood, and for the most part plays along those lines much of the way. Of course, the Coens never play anything totally straight and there are some weird moments thrown in to make things interesting. But it's all in fun, and with the intelligence we have come to expect from these off-beat filmmakers.
The year is 1949 and the town is Santa Rosa, California. In this time and place is Ed Crane (Thornton, Pushing Tin), who spends his days as a lethargic barber in a dead-end town with a loveless marriage. In fact Ed suspects correctly that his wife (McDormand, Almost Famous) has been cheating with her boss, Big Dave (Gandolfini, 8MM), which Ed uses to his advantage in a blackmail plot to help him pay his way into his own business as a dry cleaner. The plan isn't foolproof and when Big Dave is murdered, it's Ed's wife that is the suspect.
The Coen's delve into familiar territory, having done an excellent modern-day noir film Blood Simple as their big screen debut back in 1984. While The Man Who Wasn't There isn't as good as that film, it is the Coens least uneven film since Fargo, yet at the same time their least commercially viable product since Barton Fink back in 1991. The lush black-and-white cinematography hearkens back the those noir films upon which this film draws its inspiration, films like Double Indemnity and The Phantom Lady. The Coens introduce an aspect of UFOs and aliens, the meaning of which eludes me, but will serve to foster discussion among film scholars and the like for years to come.
The Man Who Wasn't There may be strictly for two types of people: those who enjoy film noir detective flicks and those who enjoy the Coen brothers style of filmmaking. Being a person of both camps, obviously this film is targeted for people like me. If you aren't really a fan of either, you probably will be bored or too impatient for a film that is very slow (even for a 90 minute flick) and doesn't really deliver a satisfying payoff in the end. Yet, speaking as someone who had to endure the tedium that was O Brother Where Art Thou which left me wondering if they were losing their touch, I can proudly proclaim myself a Coen Brothers fan once again, and I look forward to their work for many years to come.
©2001 Vince Leo