Man Who Wasn't There, The (2001) *** 1/2
Directed by Joel Coen. Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen. Photography, Roger Deakins. Editing, Roderick Jaynes & Tricia Cooke. Production design, Dennis Gassner. Music, Carter Burwell. Produced by Ethan Coen. Cast : Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, James Gandolfini, Katherine Borowitz, Jon Polito), Scarlett Johansson, Richard Jenkins,Tony Shalhoub. A USA Films release. 112 minutes. Rated R (violence, sex)
The ninth feature by the Coen brothers is, not surprisingly, a film noir set in 1949. The term "noir" is both clear and elusive, specific yet flexible. For connoisseurs I'll say that this is primarily "noir" in the sense of movies taken from James M. Cain novels --but the script here is a fully original Coen Bros. concoction--neither a traditional "noir" nor neo-noir or post-modern noir. But it also is, no doubt, like an homage to Cain, that master of pulp fiction.
In the North California town of Santa Rosa we encounter Ed (Billy Bob Thornton) who has the second chair in a small barbershop. The first chair as well as the store belong to his brother-in-law. The latter is the typical, garrulous Barber-of-Seville-ish type. Ed is the exact opposite taken as far as it can go. He is apathetic, a man of very few words and a silent dissatisfaction with his life-in-a-rut. He chain smokes no matter what he does. I wonder why the 2001 Cannes Festival did not create a prize for La Cigarette d'Or. I wonder too if Philip Morris, a regular patron of Cannes, did not subsidize that movie.
At that same 2001 Festival Joel Coen shared the Best Director prize with David Lynch whose "Mulholland Drive " was also a "noir" but post-modern with a vengeance and almost impenetrable. The Coen movie is cystal clear although it does not dot the Is or cross the Ts.
The impassive Ed is married to Doris (Frances McDormand, Joel Coen's wife and, for good reason, favorite actress.) She is the bookeeper of Nirdlinger's, the town's major department store which is run by Big Dave (James Gandolfini). His wife is the Nordlinger heiress. His mistress is Doris.
The movie is full of realistic performances and languid lives within a rich subtext and a twisty plot, telling but non-exploding scenes of ordinary people, aloofness in script and direction. It all comes down to another superior Coen Bros. accomplishment.
The near-silent Ed is at the epicenter but his role does not hog the other players. And, paradoxically, there is solid ensemble (the word means "together") acting of sad sacks, dead or isolated souls and marginal creatures. One of the latter is a smarmy salesman who approaches Ed to propose investing in something new (which was true) and money-making (also true): dry cleaning.
To skip details, Ed, aware of his wife's affair with Big Dave, resorts to blackmail. What follows is a chain of events and a case of the domino theory that are too delectable to reveal. Silent Ed dominates the film but of the other roles, none gets wasted. It is not a hype if I say that the subtexts are as good as the texts, and this for every character.
Running throughout the picture, and over and above whatever praises of James M. Cain you may detect, there is a rich flora and fauna of references or allusions to other movies. Two small examples. Santa Rosa is the setting - and in a sense, a major character - in Alfred Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" (1943) where Joseph Cotten plays the Merry Widow murderer. As "The Man..." gets new directions, a lawyer is needed. Here comes Freddy Riedenschneider --well played by Tony Shalhoub. Though I have no photographic memory it struck me that in John Huston's great heist-movie "The Asphalt Jungle," (1950), the planner of the robbery was "Doc" Riedenschneider (a wonderful Sam Jaffe.)
Such delicious references and other good moments are a film-buff's delight, but even without cross-indexing things, the Coen picture is most pleasurable, entertaining, clever and original.
The story proceeds without rushing. Its cinematography is exceptionally good. B & W (black and white) gives the sights a period authenticity, and this is creamy B & W shot by the Coens' regular collaborator, Roger Deakins. Shot with color film, mind you, but printed as black and white. The reason for using color stock is that b&w has gotten hard to find, and perhaps lacks the richness of older stock. No matter. The images are rich and fit their subjects perfectly.