Ain’t nobody home
Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film, The Man Who Wasn’t There, is a return to the kind of film noir stylishness that made their reputation in 1984’s Blood Simple. It has one of their most lean and economical plots, with delicious twists, glimmering black-and-white cinematography and encyclopedic references to some of the classics of the genre.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, a barber living a life of quiet desperation in Santa Rosa, California, in 1949. Ed is married to Doris (Frances McDormand), the sister of his boss Frankie (Michael Badalucco), and it’s an uncomfortable match. Doris has an air of prim lubricity about her that doesn’t seem to quite square with Ed’s careful drabness. This is a man who sweeps the barbershop floor as if he’s handling nitroglycerine—as if he’s afraid of bruising the hair clippings at his feet, or disturbing the air above the level of his ankles.
Doris works as a bookkeeper for Nirdlinger’s Department Store, where her boss is “Big Dave” Brewster (James Gandolfini). Ed begins to suspect that she’s having an affair with Big Dave; she goes out of her way to socialize with Dave and his wife and laughs too hard at his jokes. When Ed gets a line on a get-rich-quick investment with a loud-mouthed salesman from Sacramento (Jon Polito), he decides to raise the capital with a little anonymous blackmail: “I know about you and Doris Crane,” his note to Dave reads. “If you don’t want everyone to know, get $10,000 and wait for instructions.”
It all starts out as just a slight bending of the social contract, a tiny little touch of larceny by an ordinary joe trying to break the sickening routine of a boring life. But in true film noir fashion, Ed loses control of things immediately. Before he knows it—almost before the ash drops off the latest of his ever-present cigarettes—Doris is under arrest, accused of a murder that Ed knows she didn’t commit. Brother Frankie has mortgaged the barbershop to pay the retainer of a slick lawyer (Tony Shalhoub, in a bravura turn) for Doris’ defense.
Meanwhile, Ed takes a fatherly interest in Birdy (Scarlett Johansson),the teenage daughter of one of his customers. As the trial approaches, he clings to his concern for Birdy and what he sees as her talent as a pianist. He doesn’t understand that Birdy’s facility at the keyboard is only mediocre because he’s so mediocre himself.
Billy Bob Thornton walks a fine line: he manages to play a boring person without giving a boring performance. His Ed Crane bears out the movie’s title—the man is genuinely not there, he seems to blend into the gray background even as he speaks. It’s one of the movie’s ironies that Ed’s efforts to prove that he’s “there” are what bring on the whole chain of tragic events.
The Coens’ script works itself out in a marvel of symmetry, with the usual heaping dollops of scornful fate and poetic justice that are the hallmarks of classic film noir. If anything, it’s all a little too symmetrical; characters suit the needs of the story rather than the other way around. There’s a suicide that happens not because the character is believably suicidal, but simply because the Coens want to get that particular person out of the way.
And there are other odd little touches, too. Probably no one outside California would find it strange to hear people in Santa Rosa talking about going “down” to Sacramento, or to see a murderer sentenced to the electric chair rather than the gas chamber. Still, such touches are the tipoff that The Man Who Wasn’t There is taking place in movieland, not in the real California. That’s one of the things that set it apart from movies like Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (which was also set and filmed in Santa Rosa) and Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (Lake Tahoe). Those were movies about suspicion, betrayal and inescapable fate. The Man Who Wasn’t There, on the other hand, is a movie about making a movie about suspicion, betrayal and fate. It’s film noir once removed.