Raising James Cain

The Coen brothers’ latest homage to ‘40s film noir is a chilling pleasure

SHAVE AND A HAIRCUT Billy Bob Thornton plays a barber whose participation in a scheme for economic improvement has lethal consequences in the latest film from Ethan and Joel Coen.

SHAVE AND A HAIRCUT Billy Bob Thornton plays a barber whose participation in a scheme for economic improvement has lethal consequences in the latest film from Ethan and Joel Coen.

The Man Who Wasn’t There
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, James Gandolfini and Frances McDormand. Directed by Joel Coen, produced by Ethan Coen.
Rated 4.0

The Coen brothers have always been accused of being distant—if not outright cold—filmmakers, in that their devotion to style can be seen as taking precedence over developing empathy for the characters (if not caricatures) that populate their screenscapes. The Man Who Wasn’t There seems at times a joke on that perception. While this is the brothers’ most visually restrained vision since the noir homage Blood Simple, it is without doubt their coldest movie yet.

With its ‘40s-styled noir, this is like a crisp black-and-white postcard from James Cain himself, author of such pulp standbys as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, but skewed through the Coens’ wonderfully ironic delivery system. Set in 1949 Santa Rosa (a deliberate nod to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt), it details a David Lynchian snapshot of a sun-drenched small town full of porch swings and tips of the fedoras to the ladies that, when the surface is scratched, turns dark and is suddenly roiling with maggots.

At the heart of this suburban darkness is the soul-deadened narrative of “the man who wasn’t there,” a taciturn cuckold named Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), who is a barber-by-marriage. His wife (Frances McDormand) is a bookkeeper (and she’s also a mighty fine cook, if you know what I mean) servicing and being serviced by her employer, owner-by-marriage of the local department store. Ed is one of those people so emotionally removed from his surroundings that he has been rendered virtually invisible, which is fine by him, if only his cloak were more effective.

One sunny day, as his co-barber and brother-in-law natters on endlessly about the effectiveness of certain fishing lures, a fast-talking schemer cruises through Ed’s shop with a deal too good to pass up ($10,000 gets you on the ground floor of the wave of the future—dry cleaning), and Ed is finally encouraged like the proverbial reed to stand against the flow and try to shape his destiny. Unfortunately, as this is noir (the bleakest of film genres), Ed makes the tragic move of turning to that ever-tightening noose of fast cash, blackmail. Of course, from then on the bodies begin to pile up.

Looking like a young Boris Karloff, Thornton does his best work in years, underplaying a seeming non-role that in lesser hands would have been pedestrian and evoking in his character a soul-whipped weariness that speaks volumes without ever raising its voice. As if already beaten down by a sense of futility, Ed stoically accepts the reality that any action on his part will be met only with disastrous reaction.

While The Man Who Wasn’t There is thematically the tightest film the Coens have delivered in years, it is still handicapped by the brothers’ seeming inability to restrain themselves completely. The film tends to wobble off into the potential quagmire of their trademark “quirky” territory toward the end, with a recurring UFO motif dragged in for no apparent reason, a non-sequitur scene involving an already-deceased character that plays like a misplaced reel, and an auto accident set-piece that, while visually charming, serves only to distract the viewer out of the flow of the narrative.

Nonetheless, here the Coens manage to adhere to the genre’s visual demands, a post-expressionist style that demands deep shadows and threatening angles presented in the hyper-clarity of black and white, without succumbing too much to the giddy “boys-with-toys,” camera-happy shenanigans of their past work. The Man Who Wasn’t There delivers enough of the Coens’ distinctive touch for fans of their oeuvre while still being accessible for those who have been put off by those same self-indulgences.