The Coen brothers have been a roll lately. They picked up their first pair of Oscars for 1996’s Fargo, which they followed up with the wild and winning comedy The Big Lebowski and last year’s O Brother Where Art Thou?, a joyous hillbilly musical that became their highest grossing feature to date. Now they’ve returned to their neo-noir roots with The Man Who Wasn’t There, and their winning streak has, for now, come to an end.
Like the Coens’ 1985 debut Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn’t There involves an unfaithful wife played by Frances McDormand (real-life spouse of director Joel Coen), and a murder plot set into motion by her infidelity. And like the earlier film, that plot takes several off-kilter twists and turns before the final credits roll.But while Blood Simple put a quirky spin on the conventions of film noir by transplanting them in full bloody color to a small Texas town, The Man is more of a straightforward pastiche.That is, as straightforward as the Coens are ever likely to get.
Set in the northern California of 1949, the film tells the story of Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a dead-eyed, deadpan chain smoker who cuts hair for a living, yet doesn’t consider himself a barber. Crane is so reserved and aloof, he remains unruffled even after deducing that his wife Doris (McDormand) is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini, trotting out his goombah accent one time too many). When an investment opportunity presents itself in the form of a shifty-eyed Jon Polito, Crane sees the married Big Dave as a perfect mark. He proceeds to blackmail his wife’s lover for the $10,000 needed to get in on the ground floor of that business of the future – dry cleaning.
Naturally, things don’t go exactly according to plan. Big Dave figures out Crane’s scheme and there is a struggle, which results in a dead body. The murder is pinned on the wrong person. Another corpse turns up. As a sort of sideshow attraction (a longtime Coen tradition), Crane develops a Lolita-esque fascination for a neighbor’s piano playing daughter (Ghost World‘s Scarlett Johannson). The central gag is that through it all, Crane remains "the man who wasn’t there"; even when confessing to a crime, he is roundly ignored.
Shot by longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins on color stock, then printed in luminescent black-and-white, this is undeniably one of the Coens’ most gorgeous films. The flickering shadows in this movie should be eligible for their own Academy Award. A scene in which Crane is paid a late night visit by Big Dave’s widow is a haunting interlude of despair and desolation. Yet for all its technical excellence, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a rare misfire by the brothers Coen. The pacing is overly deliberate, and while the intent may be to slowly draw us into a world of mounting existential dread, it just comes off as sluggish. The screwball energy that fired Lebowski and O Brother is in scant supply, at least until Tony Shalhoub arrives on the scene as a fast-talking attorney about midway through the picture. He alone seems possessed by what the brothers once called "that Barton Fink feeling."
Joel Coen shared the directing prize at this year’s Cannes film festival with David Lynch, who was honored for Mulholland Drive. The two films make for an interesting contrast; at the same time Lynch has revitalized his old bag of tricks, the Coens have drained the life out of theirs (just as they’ve drained the color out of their images). All their usual tropes are present – strong period flavor and film noir atmosphere, guys in hats, bellowing fat men (a solid ton of them this time around), antiquated turns of speech, zig-zagging plot detours. For the first time, though, they seem simply to be going through the motions.It’s as if they’ve played into the hands of every critic who ever accused their films of being too mannered and emotionally distant. The Man Who Wasn’t There is certainly worth a look, but even for longtime Coen fans, this is a movie that isn’t all there.