They’ve done it again

“Put out that cigarette, or you’ll be sleeping with the fishes by sundown.”

“Put out that cigarette, or you’ll be sleeping with the fishes by sundown.”

Rated 5.0

The sun is really hot. Water is about as wet as things can get. The Coens have made another masterpiece. None of these are a surprise.

Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest, a brilliant piece of film noir called The Man Who Wasn’t There, continues their perfect streak of moviemaking. All of their films are at the least great, and in many ways, their latest is one of their best.

Playing the saddest character of recent memory, Billy Bob Thornton is Ed, a barber in 1940s Santa Rosa, Calif., who smokes a lot. He’s married to Doris (Frances McDormand), who does the books for a local department store run by a shifty guy, who goes by the name of Big Dave (James Gandolfini).

Ed is not one to talk much, but he knows more than friends and family suspect he does. When a fast-talking, toupee-wearing entrepreneur (Jon Polito, gloriously over-the-top) ends up in his barber chair talking about the future of dry cleaning, Ed hatches a plan to come up with $10,000, get in on the ground floor and do something different with his life.

The plan involves blackmail, which will eventually turn to violence, and the violence will lead the way to multiple deaths. While The Man Who Wasn’t There might remind you of films such as The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Man Who Knew Too Much—and lots of other films with “Man” in the title—it is not an all-out homage. The twisted humor of the Coens finds its way into many moments, as does one incredibly violent scene that earns the film an “R” rating and renders it decidedly modern.

Some might consider the film slow. It takes its blessed time unfolding, and God love it for that, featuring a somber piano soundtrack consisting of Beethoven’s more meditative, less rousing moments. The music is another example of director Joel Coen’s unique touch. This type of film might usually call for a moaning blues saxophone or slow jazz. Coen picks mournful, sad but beautiful classics. Ingenious.

Thornton, who has wasted his talents recently on dogs like Armageddon, Pushing Tin and Bandits, produces his best performance since Sling Blade. The title of the film is a telling one, because Ed is stuck in a place where he doesn’t feel he exists or matters to anybody. His interest in a young pianist (Scarlet Johansson), whom he thinks is a future star and wants to manage, has hints of desperate romance.

Thornton plays Ed’s yearning for a better life and getaway with a sadness that permeates every second he spends on film. The character has not one moment of happiness in this movie, and while another actor might make something like that intolerable, Thornton makes it fascinating.

Frances McDormand is a marvel as Doris, a take-charge woman who falls victim to circumstances that will change her life forever. McDormand plays Doris with amazing composure, humor and grace as her situation worsens. Gandolfini electrifies his few scenes with his patented combination of teddy bear helplessness and venomous anger. He can be one scary bastard when he wants to be. Tony Shalhoub, as Ed’s superstar lawyer, basically does a fun riff on his Hollywood producer character from the Coens’ Barton Fink.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins is another major star in this production, making every second of this film look like a work of art. It’s as if his objective were to capture the style and feel of a ‘40s film noir, and then clean it up a bit. The results are stunning.

So there you have it. The Coens have done it again. Some things stay the same and, as always, I can’t wait to see what they do next.