Man Who Wasn't There, The (2001)

Reviewed By Alexander Chancey
Posted 11/17/01 06:13:06

"One of the top 3 of the year and a possible new career high for the Coens."
5 stars (Awesome)

The collective mind of Joel and Ethan Coen has brought forth countless (well, nine actually) tales that differ vastly from each other but each has the Coen signature style. Largely, their films deal with the misguided and misunderstood and their misfortunes. None of the Coens' films depict that so well as 1991's Barton Fink. Until now. The Man Who Wasn't There, a neo-noir about a barber who has lost his way, could very well be THE definitive Coen film.

Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) works in a barbershop in 1940's Santa Rosa, CA. He doesn't have much to say, except to us through a voice-over that runs through much of the story. As he puts it, he just cuts the hair. His alcoholic wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), finds relief from their joyless marriage in an affair with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini), manager of Nirdlinger's (great name) department store. Ed knows about his wife's infidelity and finds no reason to confront it until a stranger named Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) comes into the barber shop and convinces Ed to get $10,000 together to invest in dry cleaning. Since Ed doesn't have the money, he anonymously blackmails Big Dave for it, threatening to expose his affair with Doris.

After Tolliver disappears with the money, Big Dave confronts Ed, whom he knows is the blackmailer. A struggle leaves Big Dave dead in the department store. Doris is blamed as it was her key that Ed used to get into the store, on Dave's request; she also was passed out drunk after a wedding earlier in the day, making her unable to recount her whereabouts that night. Ed and his brother-in-law, Frank (Michael Badalucco), hire a hotshot lawyer named Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub at the top of his game) to defend Doris in court. When Ed confesses during a consultation, Riedenschneider writes it off as a poorly thought out alibi.

Aside from all of this, Ed finds comfort in a friendship with Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johansson), the daughter of a client of Ed's. Either because of his faith in the teenage girl's talent as a pianist or because he feels that he can vicariously reach his goals through her success, Ed asks to be Birdy's manager to help her become a world-renowned musician. Does Birdy become a great pianist? Does Doris get pinned for the murder of Big Dave? Does Ed get found out? Does Tolliver ever show up again? You'll just have to see the film.

The Coen brothers - who now have the best track record of any American filmmakers of the past 20 years (since Tim Burton slipped up this year with Planet of the Apes) - have made the best looking black-and-white film since the golden age of cinema. Cinematographer Roger Deakins has gone above and beyond all that he did to bring out the heat and humidity of Barton Fink or the winter wasteland of Fargo. Unlike other recent neo-noirs, The Man Who Wasn't There looks and feels more classic, with a tinge of the contemporary; films like The Usual Suspects or this year's Memento play it the other way around. Even the setting of the film - Santa Rosa, CA - is a knowing wink to the underrated Hitchcock classic Shadow of a Doubt, Hitch's favorite of his films about evil in Smalltown, USA. In fact, some scenes in the film look - nay, feel - as if Hitchcock himself had been on the set during part of the shoot.

The performances are top-notch. Thornton's portrayal of Ed is his finest since his tour-de-force in Sling Blade. As in that film, he is hypnotic and sympathetic (if not pathetic) while still remaining emotionally detached from his world. Frances McDormand is great, as always. Her character doesn't have much to do but your money is well spent in the first five minutes when she yells "Bingo!" at a church function. Tony Shalhoub is, along with Johns Turturro and Goodman, one of the Coens' favorite scene-stealers; here, he gets his moment to truly shine in a major supporting role, as Turturro did in Miller's Crossing and Goodman in Barton Fink. If he doesn't pick up a supporting Oscar nod, there is no justice in Hollywood. Finally, Scarlett Johansson plays Birdy with a cool beyond her years; she has a natural ability that is comparable to a young Jodie Foster.

The Coens have added another brilliant work to American cinema with The Man Who Wasn't There. It is sure to get lost in the shuffle of Academy-friendly fare to come out soon. However, when January comes around, it will remain one of the best films of 2001.

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