The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Dir: Joel Coen
I’m willing to give the Coen brothers a chance to redeem themselves for ‘Burn After Reading’…
The first thing to note about ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ is that it’s in black and white with beautifully evocative Academy Award nominated cinematography by Roger Deakins that instantly makes it quite distinctive. This styling fits in well with the 1940’s setting and Neo-Noir storyline about a very quiet barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) who blackmails businessman Big Dave (James Gandolfini), who is his wife’s boss and possible lover, to get the money needed to invest in a dry cleaning scheme. However, as with so many Coen films, things don’t go quite to plan, and Ed unintentionally murders Big Dave in the process, accidentally implicating his own wife (Frances McDormand).
The film makes use of the common Coen technique of narration, which again fits in very nicely with it being a noir. Thornton hardly speaks throughout, but I think he actually says more in his voiceover than he does in the rest of the film. His subdued character is contrasted against some others such as his sociable wife, Big Dave, and an ill-fated entrepreneur who convinces Crane to invest in dry cleaning, leading to the pivotal blackmail.
The Coens make use of a few actors that they either worked with before, or went on to work with again. The one that stuck out for me especially was (directors wife) Frances McDormand who I found irritating in ‘Burn After Reading‘ yet really quite liked in this.
The regular Coen theme of crime is a good fit with a noir, plus the way that their criminals are usually inept or unintentional works very well with the moral ambiguity of the genre. Simple situations get more and more complex as the story twists and turns, and this is tied in with the developments of characters, especially quiet Crane who just wants a change of job but feels justified in his blackmail as his target is sleeping with his wife. Noir’s also have complex resolutions and it’s just so here, with questions as to how innocent or guilty anyone really is.
Apparently the film was conceived while making my personal favourite Coen film ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’, and it features the emergence of something now seen as commonplace, Dry Cleaning, similar to how ‘Hudsucker Proxy’ showed a fun fictional invention of the Hula-Hoop. I love this technique that offers the audience a little link into period pieces, a form of dramatic irony, that they recognise and relate to something we know will succeed and still be around in modern day.
Though the film started off in a way that didn’t hugely seem very ‘Coen’ to me, by the end it was much clearer with all the features I have mentioned and a few very quirky characters, like Big Dave’s wife who believes in alien abductions, and this leads the Coens to slip in one or two of their little quirky flourishes and brief curveballs that I am such a fan of.
Joel & Ethan, you can consider yourselves redeemed.