The Man Who Wasn't There
directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
(USA Films, 2001)

"Yeah, I worked in a barber shop, but I never considered myself a barber," says Ed Crane, introducing himself to viewers in the opening scene of The Man Who Wasn't There. What he did consider himself is never fully revealed, but what he became is examined in microscopic detail for the next 116 black-and-white darkly humorous minutes, all of them narrated by Ed.

Ed (Billy Bob Thornton) takes us from the barber shop where he works for his brother-in-law, Frank (Michael Badalucco), to his home, where he maintains at least the semblance of a marital relationship with Doris (Frances McDormand).

Doris keeps the books for Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), husband to department store heiress Ann Nirdlinger (Katherine Borowitz). That doesn't bother Ed, though; what bothers him is that Big Dave is keeping Doris. He never says anything about it -- truth is, Ed never says much about anything -- but he decides to use it to his advantage when an unusual investment opportunity comes his way.

An out-of-town venture capitalist turns up at the barber shop one day complaining about an investor who'd just blown him off -- and about the chance of a lifetime. For $10,000, Ed can get in on the ground floor of a great new business: dry cleaning.

So Ed decides to raise the money by blackmailing Big Dave, anonymously of course. And Dave pays off -- with money he convinces Doris to embezzle from the store.

Now that would be enough plot for any two movies at the going rate. But for the Coen brothers, who wrote and directed The Man Who Wasn't There, it's just the beginning.

Plenty more trouble awaits Ed and Doris and Big Dave, who, along with Frank, Ann and venture capitalist Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) make up possibly the most hideous and definitely least politically correct gang of grotesques to hit the screen since the Coen Brothers' Fargo.

To get the most out of their gargoyles, Joel and Ethan Coen try every trick in the film noir playbook, starting with razor-sharp black-and-white cinematography. Harsh rays of light spew out of buildings, down stairwells and across prison floors. Expressionism is the order of the day: shadows are large, contrasts stark, haircuts prickly.

It's a great motif for Thornton, who looks and acts like some weird cross between Dana Andrews and Rondo "The Creeper" Hatton. It's even better for Borowitz, who has what could be the film's creepiest moment: standing on Ed's porch, explaining to him how her husband was abducted by aliens on one of their camping trips.

There's even a small nod to Alfred Hitchcock: the film is set in Santa Rosa, Calif., as is one of Hitchcock's darkest mysteries, Shadow of A Doubt.

The Man Who Wasn't There is clearly not for all tastes. It's a slow-moving mood piece, set in the late '40s, which simultaneously spoofs film noir and takes noir well past its previous limits -- all the way to Roswell, in fact. It's about as dark as film can get without becoming invisible, and, on at least two occasions, becomes a chilling indictment of the U.S. legal system.

But if you like the films of Fritz Lang or the novels of James M. Cain, if you enjoy watching obsessive actors play obsessive characters, if you can attune yourself to the rich vein of coal-black humor the Coen Brothers love to mine, The Man Who Wasn't There was made for you.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 29 November 2003

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