on 1 August 2004
Having not really seen any Coen Brothers films previously I was really not too sure what to expect of this neo-noir vehicle of theirs. However, ten minutes into viewing it I realised that this was somehow different to any other film I'd seen before from recent years. I thought it would be a pretentious and manipulative film merely ripping off the old classics under the pretence of homage and art but it is far from that. This beautifully staged, costumed and atmospheric film in icy black and white has a gripping, intelligent plot and a central character who seems so vacuous and unemotional and bored in his suburban life that things turn fantastically dark at a quick, clean pace.
The plot begins reasonably simple (as do the characters), a blackmail attempt on Billy Bob Thornton's part to finance an investment into dry cleaning. However, things soon become very complex and demanding when murder, incorrect indictment and other such things inundate the picture. But still Thornton's character drifts his way through his troubles and offers occasionally inspiring lines of wisdom and the blandly imparted but true philosophies of his life. His boredom and his alienation makes him a dislikeable but trustworthy narrator for such a dark film.
'The man who wasn't there' is a very artful, quietly knowing film, lined with the malignant, full of twists, at times surreal and funny and a film that moves at its own pace to its grim and moving conclusion. It has the basis of a simple film about dissatisfaction from the forties and it investigates the problems with 'surburban boredom' and the darker and more murderous side of resolving this. A very clever film.
on 23 July 2006
Ed's a barber. He doesn't say much. He's bored - or would be if he could be arsed. He has no ambition until a couple of events coincide and coalesce into a glimmer of hope for a bit of a change: first, he thinks there are clear signs that his wife and her boss are having an affair and that bothers him a little and second, a man comes in for a haircut and plants the seed of an idea for a venture capital investment. He hasn't actually got any spare cash but there is someone he can blackmail. It's a simple plan. What could go wrong? ... everything goes wrong. A cascade of unforeseen consequences follow and his world comes tumbling down. It's a disaster.
I first came across this film after I'd tracked down one of my favourite films, "The Hudsucker Proxy". Unbelievably that film isn't available in an unbundled state for Region 2 DVD players. So, disgusted and defeated, I had to buy a whole box of films called "The Coen Brothers' Collection" because it happened to have "The Hudsucker Proxy" in it. It was like a happy accident. There were three other films in the box that I probably wouldn't have watched if I hadn't had to buy the lot in order to get the one film I wanted. "The Man Who Wasn't There" wasn't in the box but after I'd watched those films, I looked for more Coen Brothers' films and found this. A couple of days after the first time I watched it, I was driving home after an exceptionally awful day at work, feeling grim and grumpy and, in an effort to relax and stop grinding my teeth, I started thinking about some of my favourite parts of this film. By half way home I was laughing.
The story is dark, occasionally weird and (if you share the Coen sense of humour) very funny. The acting is just about perfect and the black and white photography is gorgeous. It has all the elements of a favourite film. Highly recommended.
on 21 November 2014
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) is a superbly entertaining, brilliantly wrought and deeply knowing neo-noir film from those pre-eminent genre-benders, the Coen brothers. Genre cinema has always been meat and drink for them and they have produced a series of hugely inventive films which dazzle by injecting original verve into something that should be long dead. Latterly they have moved on to the western (No Country For Old Men , True Grit ) as well as broader comic fair that strays away from the strict parameters of genre (Intolerable Cruelty , A Serious Man ). For 18 years though, from their first feature Blood Simple (1983) through to the present film their main point of reference was the classic Hollywood genre cinema of the 1930s/40s - the screwball comedy world of Frank Capra, Preston Sturges and Howard Hawks (Raising Arizona , The Hudsucker Proxy , O Brother, Where Art Thou? ) and the film noir world of Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler and James M. Cain as realized on screen by various directors like Hawks, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang.
Interestingly, the Coens had resisted pure noir for a long time. Blood Simple is a combination of Cain (Wilder's Double Indemnity ) and Hammett's novel Red Harvest, but it is set in the present day and crosses into Roman Polanski psycho-horror territory as well (think Repulsion ). Miller's Crossing (1990) is a combination of two Hammett novels - The Glass Key and Red Harvest, but plays more as a gangster picture than film noir. Then there is The Big Lebowski's hilarious comic riff on Chandler (and Hawks') The Big Sleep (1946) again up-dated and turned into a bizarre post-modern mixture of Sturges screwball comedy and Thomas Pynchon. As the Coens have said in interview, to fit the 'genre' description a film has to stay within its genre parameters and can't cross over and 'fudge' with anything else. With this in mind The Man Who Wasn't There is the first noir they have made that ticks almost all the right boxes. It dwells on criminality in an urban environment, focusing on greed, infidelity, murder, blackmail and all things dark that lie buried deep within the human psyche. It deploys an echt-Cain plot instigated by the main protagonist (joke ref: Ed Crane/Cain - Geddit?) which goes spectacularly wrong. It is unremittingly serious (as epitomized by Billy Bob Thornton's marvelous comatose central performance) almost to the point of absurdist parody. The narrative is related in the first person via the customary noir-voiceover looking back from a point in the future. It is made in b/w to give an extraordinary other-worldly steely edge to the watered-down German-expressionist emphasis on extreme shadow and light that is the signature of all film noir. The film also rejects the revisionist neo-noirs (Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye , Polanski's Chinatown ) which added immoral twists (commenting on the then-incumbent Nixon administration) to a genre which really belongs to the deeply moral world of the 1940s where all the classic noirs ended with the baddies suitably punished. The only box The Man Who Wasn't There doesn't tick is the fact that it wasn't made within the prescribed time period 1937-53 (the dates of two iconic Fritz Lang pictures - You Only Live Once and The Big Heat - which arguably book-end the genre). The film is set in 1949 which makes it the purest noir the Coens have ever produced. The fact that 13 years have passed with no new noir project in sight suggests it may well be their last.
Now, some people have little time for genre film. They see it as a purely commercial off-shoot of an art form and can't understand why obviously talented directors like the Coens would waste their time with it. It's true genre cinema is very popular and has been used and abused down the years by studios and film companies all too quick to cash in on a way to tailor product to the market and play audiences for suckers. Most genre cinema is commercial garbage as a result with mindless films endlessly repeating formulas with little artistic worth. The best genre films however stand above this by connecting with the culturally determined popular sub-conscience. They 'write large' basic impulses that inform our daily lives and behavior patterns. The very best succeed in exposing these hidden impulses and cultural trends in new and radical ways and in fact are so sharp and acute that I would claim they deserve to be placed alongside the very best art films. In the case of post-war film noir the films in question reflected the heightened ennui that befell average people as the men returned from World War Two and home lives returned to normal. Life in 'average' small town America seemed even more mundane because of the politico-social upheavals that had preceded it. People's itchy secret desires 'for something more in life' needed to be fulfilled and it was this demand that film noir in particular addressed. People could knowingly (or not) play out their secret desires in the darkness of the movie theatre rather than indulging in criminal activity themselves.
The Man Who Wasn't There is set in Santa Rosa, California - a place noir aficionados will instantly associate with Hitchcock's 1943 noir, Shadow of a Doubt which centered on a girl named Charlie and her desire to escape her boring town. As if in answer to her prayer, her alter ego Uncle Charlie (note the same name) comes to stay and of course livens up the place with his immorality (he is a serial killer). Charlie's character is reflected in the Coens' film by the character of Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johansson), an adolescent incarcerated in the same provincial backwater yearning for escape. In fact, just as in Shadow of a Doubt, all the characters in The Man Who Wasn't There are trapped by the boredom of their provincial lives and crave excitement.
Skipping over our taciturn tonsure main character for the moment, there's his `femme fatale' duplicitous wife Doris (a fabulous portrait of dowdy cynical vanity by Frances McDormand) who vents her frustration through boozing and carrying on an affair with her boss in the department store where she cooks the books. She hopes for career advancement and material wealth. Her boss is Big Dave Brewster (the versatile James Gandolfini), a returned `war hero' who announces himself as the new Messiah of materialism in little Santa Rosa. To say what he is frustrated about and running away from would be telling. Doris' family owns the barber store where Ed works. It's run by her amiable brother Frank (Michael Badalucco in fine motor mouth form) a man happy with his simple small town existence, but who eventually feels its limitations like everyone else. Other characters are Big Dave's wife Ann (Katherine Borowitz) who is paralyzed by the fear of aliens, and Birdy's father Walter Abundas (a very funny Richard Jenkins) who presides over everyone, but abrogates his responsibilities from the inside of a whisky bottle. No wonder his daughter wants to leave. Circling these lovely small town folks are a couple of sharks sniffing for meat - Creighton Tolliver (the usual sweaty Jon Polito) a dodgy entrepreneur searching for $10,000 bucks to enter the dry cleaning business, and Freddy Riedenschneider (the imperious high falutin' Tony Shalhoub) a sharp and arrogant criminal lawyer brought in from Sacramento who looks down his nose at the weedy denizens of Santa Rosa from his table at his luxury restaurant and from the most expensive hotel in town - both bought at his client's expense of course. Both sharks can't wait to skip town as soon as business is done and everyone has been sucked dry.
The boredom is stated most emphatically by Ed Crane, the barber whose bored almost catatonic worldview permeates the whole picture. Billy Bob Thornton stunningly conveys his character's weirdly empty placidity. His voice-over is given in a laconic deadpan drawl, he never smiles, and he barely reacts to anything or anyone. However, as the film progresses this proves to be deceptive. Just like the boring humdrum suburban life of Santa Rosa, underneath the surface lethargy lie violent desires and cravings itching to be expressed. These erupt through taking revenge on Big Dave Brewster for screwing his wife. Ed claims he doesn't care about the infidelity - like Hell he doesn't! Like his namesake Marion Crane (in Hitchcock's Psycho , the first 20 minutes of which represents the last gasp of authentic noir) Ed sees an opportunity to make money. He blackmails Big Dave for $10,000 which he `invests' with Tolliver. Later in the film he learns about his wife's pregnancy from a doctor named Dietrichson (the name of the victim in Double Indemnity) and confesses that he hasn't "performed the sex act" with Doris for many years. This casts Ed as another in the series of castrated middle-aged men that goes back to the roles Edward G. Robinson played in two classic Fritz Lang noirs - Richard Wanley in The Woman in the Window (1944) and Chris Cross in Scarlet Street (1945). Aside from a passion for revenge, Ed also craves the company of Birdy and her piano playing. This obsession is underlined by the Beethoven piano sonatas that swamp the soundtrack to determine a mood of repressed sexuality that pervades the entire film. The scene where Ed stands in Birdy's room insisting absolutely that he wants to take her to see a top music teacher in San Francisco en-route to a concert career is the most emotional he gets and the closest he approaches to recovering whatever sexual potency he once had. A man castrated by years of sexless marriage and trapped in a small provincial backwater working in a barber's shop owned by his wife's family, Ed sees his chance to make money, escape the family trap, take revenge on his enemies and promote the girl of his dreams. It's not too hard to imagine these desires encapsulating the same feelings of 1949 audiences, and by re-casting it as a new film in 2001 the Coens are suggesting (probably accurately) that these desires pertain even now for they are basic mythic impulses that transcend time and place. As in all their genre film work, the directors invoke the old to shed light on the new.
The post-war period is caught very impressively by Roger Deakins' gleaming noir photography and because we see everything from Ed's weird perspective, cultural pointers of the time are made to look bizarre even if they are well rooted in fact. This ranges from the expressionistic depiction of Nirdlinger's department store which encapsulates the onset of the consumer boom that would escalate throughout the 50s and the ever-present threat of atomic annihilation (Frank reads in the newspaper about Russian atomic tests), to UFO sightings. Riedenschnieder uses Werner Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle (which is said to have influenced Einstein) to state a legal point. Possibly because Ed himself feels so alien to the environment that surrounds him, he is drawn to the possibility of the existence of UFOs. He reads about the Roswell incident in the paper, is visited by Ann Brewster who is convinced she saw her husband being abducted by aliens, experiences a car crash as a flying saucer hallucination and finally dreams about being visited by a UFO. All of this taken with the use of Beethoven may seem unusual in film noir, but there are precedents (atomic threat was dealt with by Robert Aldrich in Kiss Me Deadly  while aliens came to roost in Jacques Tourneau's Cat People ) and the story pans out in traditional noir style without putting a foot wrong. A superb central performance from Thornton leading a cast who are all equally as accomplished, it's an altogether remarkable achievement from the Coens and stands as one of their finest films.
This DVD release is superb with excellent visuals (aspect ratio 16:9) and sound. The extras are generous with an extended (perhaps too extended) 50 minute interview with Roger Deakins, a making of documentary and out-takes. The Coens are irresistible film makers and this film is one to savor. Recommended with enthusiasm.
on 1 December 2006
After the success of their southern odyssey O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers once again proved themselves to be the most unpredictable filmmakers in Hollywood by serving up The Man Who Wasn't There, a dream-like, detached, languid neo-noir right out of leftfield, standing in stark contrast to the misadventures of Ulysses Everett McGill and co. Not least because the film is shot in black and white, but because it maintains an almost Zen-like air of quiet (although definitely not tranquillity) throughout, due in large part to Billy-Bob Thornton's stoic and enigmatic performance as Ed Crane, the nucleus of this mood movie.
Crane is a disenfranchised barber (he doesn't much care for the title) with a disenfranchised wife living in Santa Rosa, 1949. He cuts hair; she works in a department store. Their relationship is barely existent, they seem to just be one of those couples. Things start happening when Ed gets drawn into a business opportunity -as a silent partner no less- involving a dry-cleaning enterprise. He needs $10,000 to get in on it. Acting on suspicions of infidelity on his wife's part, he turns to blackmail, leading to murder, and wrongful imprisonment. If all this sounds like quite a ride, dash those thoughts now. Most of this is tied up by the hour mark, leaving the rest of the film to ruminate on isolation, wasted life and UFO's. Although quite a departure, even for the preposterously eclectic Coens, the film remains unmistakeably theirs. They imbue it with such a vivid visual style, thanks in part to Roger Deakins' austere cinematography, that the film does take on, fairly early, the feel of a dazed half-dream with Thornton's bone-dry voiceover your guide. some may see this film as style trumping substance, especially as it drifts away and disintegrates toward the end, but let yourself get swept up in Ed Crane's unusual story and you'll see that here it is no bad thing at all, but in fact an incredibly affecting experience.
on 21 June 2002
"In a perfect world all film would be made by the Coen Brothers"
Once again the Coen Brothers have created another masterpiece for us to enjoy. Firstly, their choice of cast is superb!! With flawless performances from Billy Bob Thornton and Frances Mcdormand. Again we see the characters written in so much detail, maikng the viewer so much more involved with them. Like with all their prior films, it just gets better every time you watch it because you pick up on more details.
As usual, the script is superb and witty, and even though there are many elements of comedy, this is one of their deeper films, which deserves as much, if not more respect, as Fargo.
The introduction of black and white is essential to this film as it enforces the impression of being in the 1940's. This also gives opportunity for new directing techniques, which we see throughout the film with superb lighting effects. This film definately would not have worked in colour!
Each film they direct they choose a different musical theme, and 'The Man Who Wasn't There' has a classical soundtrack, which fits perfectly to the setting, making the viewer moved and feeling sad for the characters in this black comedy.
As for the special features, there are enough to please any viewer, including a commentary from the directors.
This is definately a must buy for any Coen Brothers fan, and if you like this film and are new to the Coen Brothers world I suggest you watch ALL of their other films.
on 10 February 2004
Ed Crane is the chain smoking barber and the man who wasn't there, one of the latest offerings from the impressive Coen brothers. Crane is played by Billy Bob Thornton who in character narrates this bleak film noir vision of an ordinary and invisible man, whose life spirals out of control due to a set of related incidents. There is murder, betrayal and blackmail plus also a slight glimmer of hope for the main protagonist, but there are larger issues at stake here which sets this film apart from its contemporaries.
The plot is set around the murder of a local business man - a distinctly unlike able James Gandolfini ('Big' Dave) and Crane's wife played superbly by one of the Coens favourites - Frances McDormand finds herself as the prime suspect. Things are much more convoluted than that of course, but to discuss the finer points of what happens from here would spoil too much of the plot. What is striking from the moment you start watching this film is the superb performance Thornton puts in, never has a character so openly taciturn and mundane been played with such emotion. You cannot help but feel sorry for Crane, especially when he finds himself in the dock for a crime he did not commit and despite his misgivings, the way Thornton portrays him can only lead you to empathise thoroughly with the mans plight. McDormand once again builds on her reputation from roles in previous Coen brother films, notably Blood simple and Fargo and the rest of the support cast put in good performances especially Tony Shaloub (Monk!) as the big shot lawyer from out of town.
What also makes this a highly likable and original film is the beautiful photography and the music score which suits the pace of the movie perfectly. Although this may not be the Coens most palatable film it is certainly a bold adventure which works well and can sit proudly amongst their finest. Do not be put off by the fact that this is shot in black and white or that the pace of the film can seem slow at times - it is the ideal antidote to much of what is produced in Hollywood. It is also hard to imagine Billy Bob Thornton in a finer role, he plays a man ignored by society, an ordinary man trying to live his life in an ordinary way - he cuts hair. Yes this is a depressing tale of a man with no real place in our world, a man who until he does something extraordinary or notorious will never receive recognition. It is a tale common to modern society and for that fact alone I can highly recommend this film.
on 3 July 2003
The Coens have once again outdone themselves. This black comedy had me giggling like a schoolgirl. Roger Deakins photography is outstanding, possibly his best work. The performances are perfect, the pacing even and measured. This is not a brain dead action movie, this is beautiful film making at its best. Never has a pitch about a barbers and a dry cleaning venture been so well executed .
on 20 October 2003
This is a beautiful movie, done in film-noir style. The main character could've been played by Bogart, but Billy Bob Thornton does it briliantly and should have got every best actor award that year. Great actors, AMAZING photography, wonderful and witty script and in the whole, a piece of art.
BUT- it's a Coen film, that means IT'S NOT FOR EVERYBODY. If you think it goes anywhere near Lebowski or Fargo, be careful. The Coens do what they're best at- surprising their faithful fans making a film which is totally different from the last one. If you haven't seen anything by the Coens, you may love "The man...", but you may also find it slow or just weird. You have to see it with an open mind, as it's full of the acid situations common to all the Coens' filmography. Action-packed films lovers, this is not for you. But if you like films tht are different from the usual blockbusters you'll love this one.
By the way, the extras are a little poor, with just one cut-scene worth watching and a TV-filler making-of. buy it for the quality of image, especially if you like Black and White photos.
on 3 May 2002
Although watching "The Man who wasn't there" is somewhat akin to being sucked into a surreal dreamscape, you can't help but admire the stunningly crafted scenes of dark beauty that the Coen brother's have painted here. Each scene is painstakingly presented to us in a faultless manner so they remain permanently etched on your mind. Unlike a lot of films where the incidental elements just wash over you, in "The Man Who Wasn't There" they seem to stay with you forever.
Billy Bob Thornton seems as if he was born to play this part and it is easily his finest moment. His performance is breathtaking. And he is backed up by a fine cast. The direction is near faultless as well.
I have watched a LOT of films over the years, many of which have aspired to greatness but very few that have deserved to be there. This is one film that is fully deserving of greatness and is destined to remain a classic for many years to come.
This is not one of my favourite Coen Brothers films, but it's still very good and The Man Who Wasn't There has much to recommend it. All the usual Coen quirks are in evidence and this film is memorable for the performance of Bill Bob Thornton as the dumbstruck barber, all shot in a truly anachronistic black and white that reminds me of those 1950s sci-fi series, like the Invaders, which is more than a little apt, considering the 'They Came From Outer Space' sub-plot. James Gandolfini does a great Tony Soprano replica, and I'm not sure if it's purposeful, maybe he can't do dodgy businessmen any other way? Regardless, this film is deeply odd, and whilst not as accessible as O Brother, Fargo, The Big Lebowski or any of their other quirky masterpieces, it's still well worth the time.