The Man Who Wasn’t There is a stylish homage to film noir from the Coen brothers. It perfectly captures the existential crisis of its hero, and the emptiness of post-war America that inspired film noir in the first place. The Coens may be better than almost anyone else these days at crafting modern genre pictures, and thankfully this one offers a more absurd and usual treatment of film noir than the western with True Grit.
Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is an aimless barber in Santa Rosa, California whose life is going okay until he gets mixed up in his wife’s (Frances McDormand) affair with local department store owner “Big” Dave (James Gandolfini) and a bogus dry cleaning investment. He almost accidentally ends up committing a murder, which his wife is framed for. So he hires bigshot lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), who doesn’t really help much. After the trial, he tries to find comfort in a friendship with a young piano player, Birdy (Scarlett Johansson). He also hear rumors of aliens, and in general can’t really seem to find much meaning in his life.
Ed Crane is an interesting character, because he is pretty empty. He doesn’t really speak much and when we do hear from him, mostly in voice over, he doesn’t seem to care much about anything that’s happening to him. He face is pretty immobile, he only has about three expressions. He smokes constantly, even when he’s in the middle of cutting someone’s hair. He may seem like a non-person, but even through his emptiness it’s clear that he wants something, anything at this point, to happen to him. He tries to jump start that with the dry cleaning investment, and it certainly gets him into trouble, but it doesn’t improve his state of mind.
As interesting at that is philosophically and as great as this movie is to watch, it doesn’t offer a lot of emotional connection to really anything in the story. That doesn’t make it a bad film, but of the two most common criticisms I’ve read (the one I pointed out and the fact that the film is pretty derivative), this is the one that bothers me more. It’s hard to really, really, be on Ed’s side through all of this, just because he’s so nonchalant about the whole thing. This movie is still great to watch though. It may move a bit slow but it’s the kind of slow one describes as “deliberate” instead of boring. I was interested to see how the film would turn out, because I wanted to see if any meaning could be derived out of Ed’s life, even if Ed didn’t particularly seem anxious to find it. Whether or not the film did come up with any or sort of narrative that could explain Ed’s experiences is still kind of up in the air, but I was pleased with how the picture ended all the same.
The visuals in this movie are the reason to see it though. The Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakins lovingly recreate a 1940s film noir style, to great results. Besides the high contrast lighting (which they somewhat abandon during more mundane scenes, something that fits with how bored Ed is in the story), a lot of older film techniques were recreated as well. They used a few irises, even though those are older than film noir, it still works, and some very cheesy spinning effects during the car crash which hearken back to the earlier days of film. I also liked the switch at the end of the film from mostly black to mostly white, I’m not sure exactly what it signifies (death maybe, going towards the white light?) but it was pretty cool.
The Man Who Wasn’t There is one of the Coen brothers’ film that I like a lot. I would definitely go back for a rewatch at some point. It’s a bit strange, but in a good way that only the Coen brothers can deliver on. Deakins’ cinematography is gorgeous, and the film’s overall style is a wonderful recreation of the ’40s. If you have enough patience to wade through this existential mess, it’s well worth a look.
“He told them to look not at the facts, but at the meaning of the facts. Then he said the facts had no meaning.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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