Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Release Date: October 26, 2001 (UK); November 2nd, 2001 (US limited)
Genre: Crime; Drama
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson
There’s something incessantly comforting about The Man Who Wasn’t There. Maybe it’s the traditional and dearly received monochrome visual style. Or a number of idiosyncratic, often comical characters. Perhaps it’s even that distinct narrative structure that the Coen brothers regularly implement into their meticulously crafted films. In reality, the combination of each of these engaging aspects and more provides this aura of odd satisfaction. Coen aficionados will absolutely enjoy the classically cinematic piece, a shrewd and well-paced drama that certainly dabbles in less unknown ground than it does commonality, but is all the better for it.
Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is exceptionally unexceptional. In his own words, he’s just the barber, a profession he happened to “stumble into”. Nothing glamorous, everything mundane. He doesn’t talk much either, and when he does his words often couple together in coherent wonderment about the growth of hair. Surprisingly then (or unsurprisingly) Ed’s decision to invest in a new dry-cleaning venture is the catalyst for an incredible domino effect of rotten luck, and even more terrible repercussion. Yet he is still unmoved. Not carefree as that’d be too mindfully jaunty and far from stubborn as that would indicate innate emotion. No, as his world unfolds around him Ed Crane remains an unremarkable man, in remarkable circumstances.
The down-on-your-luck bedraggled main protagonist is a Coen stalwart, and that’s entirely the case here. Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane — a character named after a construction machine is banal prophecy at its finest — typifies this presence of lingering non-attraction. A non-attraction only really sold at face value though, because as the film progresses and the dominoes continue fall, Crane’s disassociation with it all is oddly humorous. Just like in A Serious Man, and even more so in their newest offering Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen’s strategically present an ailing, undesirable human who still makes you laugh. Not in a guffawing manner, but rather through chuckles supported by a bleak undertone. The characters around Ed only serve as further coals to the comedic fire. Jon Polito sweats flippantly in a hilarious turn as Ed’s potential dry cleaning business partner. Brother-in-law Frank, played by Michael Badalucco, is a motor mouth who can’t even prevent his tongue from wavering during a murder trial.
On the other side of the Coen coin, there’s an ostentatiously serious murder cover-up story playing out. In many other settings the sincerity of these dramatic proceedings would be tragic, but as the widow of the victim details how she believes aliens and the government to be responsible for her late husband’s demise (a theory book-ended by ironically eerie music) you cannot help but awkwardly laugh out of nonsensical fear. Even Ed’s total removal from everyday society is a depressing tale. As he reflectively narratives events whilst they unfold, Ed constantly refers to himself in loner terms, as if a complete disconnect prevents him from being fully incorporated into the world. Only his shadow follows him, unnerved. Perhaps this is why he decides to hatch an elaborate plan to become part of a fairly feeble business venture — solely to be involved. “I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. Nobody saw me. I was the barber,” are sobering reflections from an unfortuitous gentleman, but in the peculiarly poised Cold War landscape — where everybody suspects something but nobody suspects Ed — it’s sort of inexplicably funny. This curious dichotomy, where a load of off-beat happenings congregate in an intelligently crafted manner, paves way for a hilariously strange output, one which screams proudly Coen.
James Gandolfini is purposeful, arrogant and boisterous as Big Dave, manager of a local department store where Ed’s wife works. Gandolfini purveys a bumbling kind, one without any real moral compass and whose arrogance often gets the better of him. It’s an excellent performance portraying a character who accentuates Ed’s triviality; as Big Dave recalls his (true or untrue) tales of fighting in World War II, we are informed Ed was turned away by army officials for having flat feet. Gandolfini’s “what kind of man are you?” packs a familiar punch too. Frances McDormand is Ed’s aforementioned wife Doris, someone who might come across as particularly uninspiring if not in the presence of Ed. A fresh-faced Scarlett Johansson even makes an appearance as a young piano player, and the only person who generates any significant (perhaps repentant) energy out of Ed.
Camera master Roger Deakins once again breathes an aesthetically majestic life into a film. His shots are often reined in by simplicity, but always evoke a sense of fond visual appreciation. The black and white depiction even embodies a character of its own, complementing Ed’s nonchalant attitude in one unassuming sense but then contrasting his superior normality in another — the style certainly isn’t normal these days.
The Coen brothers boast a unique filmmaking mantra, one that is beloved by many and that often succeeds. In the case of The Man Who Wasn’t There it’s another success story, as the various components — idiosyncratic dialogues, an unlucky non-hero, splendidly manipulated visuals, and magnificently crafted sets — all come together in a weirdly comical and soothing experience.