The Coen brothers are threatening to become as prolific and distinctive filmmakers as Woody Allen.Their latest, The Man Who Wasn’t There, is set in 1949 and shot by Roger Deakins in gloriously rich black and white (accentuating every shadow). It’s part crime film and part film noir homage. The structure, narration and ironic twist owe a considerable debt to movies like Tay Garnett’s 1946 The Postman Always Rings Twice. But it’s mostly about the journey of one man, the titular Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton).
Crane is a barber in Santa Rosa, California. Hitchcock chose the same setting for Shadow of a Doubt in 1942 because its suburban banality made it an unlikely location for a thriller. Crane suspects his wife (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss (James Gandolfini), but his anonymous attempt at blackmail has unforeseen and disastrous consequences.
Crane barely registers with the people around him. He doesn’t talk much, so Thornton provides a laconic voiceover describing what’s in his head. Thanks to his skilful use of body language, Thornton seems to fade into the shadows. But he maintains life in his performance life through his voice. Despite the deadpan expression, Thornton is never dull to watch.
Crane’s relationship with a young music student reveals what moves him, and helps rationalise his fate. Scarlett Johansson impresses as the music student, an unlikely femme fatale, while McDormand is enjoyably quirky as Crane’s bingo-playing wife. Tony Shalhoub is marvellous as the fast-talking attorney, Freddy Riedenschneider (“I litigate - I don’t capitulate”).The Man Who Wasn’t There is full of Coen brothers eccentricities and frequently funny. There’s a character who doesn’t blink, even when recounting a UFO experience. The plotting is complicated, but secondary to the characters, dialogue and sumptuous look (production design and costumes courtesy of Dennis Gassner and Mary Zophres respectively). Carter Burwell contributes a sublime score and the soundtrack also incorporates Beethoven’s Pathetique and Moonlight sonatas.