“The Man Who Wasn”t There” is another example of how the Coen Brothers can use similar story lines and themes in a film while completely switching the time, place and circumstances. They can go from a bowling alley in Venice, Calif. to a snow covered country bar in North Dakota without blinking an eye. In this case, the backdrop is a small town in California following World War II. The film, shot in black and white, is an homage to the film noir of the “40s and “50s, from the smoke and shadow filled visuals to the highly stylized lighting to the ironic and tragic story.
Ed Crane (Bill Bob Thornton) is a barber. (Actually, as he says, although he works in a barber shop “I never considered myself a barber.”) Ed is a zombie, for he walks through his life, doing little and saying even less. He is a man who, although he is alive, doesn”t know how to live his life. He doesn”t even care when he finds out that his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini), because, after all, “it”s a free country.” His only real comforts are chain smoking and listening to a friend”s daughter (Scarlett Johansson, “Ghost World”) play Beethoven.
When a fast talking, toupee wearing businessman (Coen Bros. regular Jon Polito) comes in for a haircut and starts gabbing about a venture capital opportunity in a wondrous new industry called “dry cleaning,” Ed makes the decision to blackmail Big Dave for the $10,000 necessary to finance the deal. It seems simple enough. However, when Big Dave ends up dead and the finger is pointed as Doris, Ed is drawn into a complicated and more dangerous scenario than he imagined.
It would be wrong to reveal any details of the plot beyond this point, because although they are predictable, it is part of the experience to go along for the ride. Many of these plot twists mimic the familiar events of many of the original film noir. But in this movie, the story itself is not necessarily as important as the amazing visuals and the style of the film. This is not unheard of for the Coen Brothers, which explains the mixed reviews of “O Brother, Where Art Thou” last year, which featured stunning sound, visuals and general style but (some felt) lacked a deep and meaningful story. “The Man Who Wasn”t There” is a serious film, but it is filled with dry, dark humor from the supporting characters. Sometimes Ed”s deadpan narration, which is featured throughout the film, provides comic relief as well.
Thornton does an unbelievable job of conveying his emotion (or lack thereof) using only his eyes, because the rest of his face changes very little, and he never smiles throughout the entire film. He has two or three expressions that he chooses between, and his posture, style and the cigarette dangling from his lip are unchanging. Considering that he is playing a barber, Thornton manages to look mysterious and sometimes just plain cool. (Imagine if Albert Camus had quit writing “The Plague” to take up the haircutting arts.) His character isn”t a hero, but he”s not pure evil either. He fits into that big gray area into which many people fall.
Gandolfini, even in this small role, further shows that he will not be typecast, giving a convincing portrayal of the manager of Nirdlinger”s department store. Tony Shalhoub (“Galaxy Quest,” “Barton Fink”), one of the best character actors around, gives a hilarious performance as Freddy Riedenschneider, a slick big city lawyer called in to defend Doris.
“The Man Who Wasn”t There” is similar to classic film noir in many of its themes, such as the ironic conviction of the right person for the wrong crime and the idea of the little, timid man trying to rise out of his station in life. Twists of fate and a sense of impending tragedy keep us wondering what the meaning is, but as Ed informs us, Freddy tells the jury in his summation “to look not at the facts, but at the meaning of the facts. Then he said the facts had no meaning.””