[Deep Focus]
The Man Who Wasn't There

Billy Bob Thornton: miss him?

Movie Credits:

Directed by Joel Coen

Written by Coen and Ethan Coen

Edited by Coen, Coen and Tricia Cooke

Music by Carter Burwell

Cinematography by Roger Deakins

Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand and James Gandolfini

USA, 2001

Aspect ratio: 1.85:1

Screened at AMC Empire 25, New York, NY

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I received some Coen-Brothers-related hate mail recently, when one reader helpfully quoted the cautionary sentence that led my review of their Fargo ("I've never had much use for the Coen Brothers," I admitted) before calling me an idiot. Such is the passion that the Coens' ouevre instills in those to whom it speaks most clearly. And I've always wanted to understand the appeal.

So I'm not being disingenuous when I say that my rampant admiration of the goofy The Big Lebowski and the backhandedly profound O Brother, Where Art Thou? thrilled me. Finally, I felt like I was catching up to the Coens, and while the ensuing sense of wonder wasn't exactly enough to shake my ass out of the couch and into a theater showing the reissue of Blood Simple, it did turn me into something of a fan. And it's under that relatively fannish circumstance that I watched their new one, The Man Who Wasn't There.

Which left me kind of cold.

Brilliant Roger Deakins cinematography (in monochrome!). Sparkling performances from Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Tony Shalhoub, and especially Billy Bob Thornton. Terrific hard-boiled late-1940s James M. Cain ambience. And a number of sterling directorial touches that show the directors at the top of their considerable game.

What's not to like? The glacial pace. The unrelenting self-consciousness. The perverse attempt to drain the life out of film noir archetypes, exemplified by Thornton's prattling internal monologue, which itself aims to be a story within a story. We're meant to juxtapose Thornton's stony exterior with the ingenuousness of his narrative. He is a fundamentally Good Man, I suspect we're meant to believe, in a lonely world.

Thornton plays Ed, the titular schlub who's so inconspicuous it seems he could get away with murder. Ed works as a barber, but longs for something greater. He's got a wife (McDormand) who loves him, but he suspects she's having a fling with her boss at the department store, Big Dave (Gandolfini). And when a smooth-talking but distinctly low-rent businessman breezes through town selling a line about some newfangled scheme called "dry cleaning," Ed gets to thinking about whether he could scare up enough cash to get in at the ground floor.

Ed's plan to raise $10,000 quick is undoubtedly the ballsiest thing he's ever been involved in. You can tell by looking at his face, which is craggy and shadowed under Deakins' camera eye, but which betrays no hint of wheeling and dealing. His face conveys hope, and maybe faith. Thornton's presence in this film is A Great Thing, a reminder of the sort of gravity he brings to his best roles and a rebuke to the amiable bullshit he shoveled, woefully miscast, in Bandits. And still it's not enough for me.

It's not enough because Thornton's utter guilelessness is balanced by the presence of two very clever brothers behind the scenes. For better or for worse, it's difficult to watch a Coen Bros. movie without being very aware of their sensibilities at work-look, it's John Goodman seeming as if he's ready to explode, it's a human leg (a human leg!) being shoved into a wood-chipper, it's a final-reel flood of, well, Biblical proportions, and so it must be un film de Coens. Did I mention that I hated Barton Fink, probably the ur-Coen film?

What was charming about O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the generosity of the sophistication with which it was conceived. The gifts it repaid to moviegoers who let their guard down far enough to get caught up in the general goofiness included a sterling soundtrack album, the first genuinely great performance by George Clooney, a new American mythology, and a sense of wonder at the mysteries offered up in the course of everyday American life. The Man Who Wasn't There, by contrast, is tied up in deliberate paradox. The grittiness of the neo-noir conception (why are these mock films noir, which mainly serve to illustrate what real noir is not, so attractive to smart filmmakers?) is undermined by the wacky UFO visitation; the urgency of Ed's desperate situation is blunted by the sense of poetry that infests his voiceover, offering a series of Burma Shave signs on the way to some noodling about love and death. I'd complain about the blow job scene, which seemed so obvious that I couldn't believe the Coens actually went there, but saying any more would probably be a spoiler. Oh, Ed is misunderstood, he is.

Now, The Man Who Wasn't There is pretty clearly meant to be Serious Stuff, while Lebowski and O Brother are generally thought of as larks, vacations from the tough business of revealing the nature of the human soul and such that the Coens were engaged in during the making of Barton Fink and Fargo. Moreover, there's a lot happening in this film that's worth savoring. In one scene, the love that exists between Ed and his wife-long-standing, deep-seated married love, rather than the common Hollywood crap-is testified to in a single, slow sideways glance. And some of Ed's ruminations do have a stirring poetry-of-the-American-heartland appeal that must be deeply felt. Ed the barber is one of the year's more memorable characters, and when he ruminates on the hair and fingernails that continue to grow from a corpse, the film approaches greatness. But it's the smart-ass asides, like the line where somebody makes a gratuitous comparison to "the nips at Nagasaki" (it's hard-boiled!), the pre-ordained genre-savvy meanderings of the plot (oh, the irony!), and finally the level of self-conscious craftsmanship, like Roger Deakins' yah-you-betcha photography (it's a period piece!), that put me at a terminal remove from the Coens' world.

Look at it this way: both Lebowski and O Brother felt like occasions for the Coens to cut loose and have a good time with themselves, their performers and their audience, celebrating several different types of Americana all at once. I took the gesture at face value and was grateful. (I dug Raising Arizona, too.) By contrast, The Man Who Wasn't There is a party in a smoke-filled room. It's densely packed and suffocating. It feels too much like a catalog of references to itself, and to its makers' extensive schooling. This may be a deeply felt fable of American life, but, like so many of their films, it's several shades too clever to play as drama.

DEEP FOCUS: Movie Reviews by Bryant Frazer