You either love Film Noir or you hate them. There really is no in-between. You either love the use of shadows, the black and white, the voiceover narration, the “me versus the world” themes, or you don’t. I happen to like Film Noir, so Ethan and Joel Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There was a welcome treat.
The Man Who Wasn’t There opens with Ed (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber in a 2-man barbershop in a small California town, passing another uneventful day at work. It’s 1947 and our hero, Ed, a laconic sort of fellow (that means he doesn’t talk much and likes to keep to himself) is feeling left out in the world. Ed has no sense of his place in today’s world, has no idea where he’s going, or even where he’s been. He’s married to Doris (familiar Coens’ contributor Frances McDormand), a department store clerk who happens to be sleeping with her boss, loudmouth Big Dave (James Gandolfini).
Ed gets wind of the affair about the same time a traveling conman blows into town to make Ed an offer he can’t refuse — investment in the latest craze, a dry cleaning laundry mat. Ed decides to blackmail Big Dave for $10,000 in order to get into the investment. Things start to go right for Ed when Big Dave pays up, but that’s when everything starts to go wrong, and if you don’t think it can get any worst for Ed, you don’t know your Film Noir conventions.
The film was written by the Coen brothers, but only Joel Coen takes credit as director, and if this is the case, then Joel Coen gets the credit for fashioning a spectacular film that looks great from its first opening shot. Like all Coens production, the movie is very good to look at, and is completely different from the last Coens movie you saw.
If the Coens are known for one thing, it’s the almost odd choice of subject material. Compare The Man Who Wasn’t There with their Academy Award winning movie Fargo and you wouldn’t know the same people wrote and directed both films. The same goes for their last film, O Brother Where Art Thou, about escaped convicts fleeing through the South stopping only to sing a few bluegrass songs here and there. Joel Coen lensed The Man Who Wasn’t There completely in black and white, and really, there’s no other way to make this film other than black and white. Everything makes sense, everything looks great, and Joel Coen’s camerawork is just superb.
Of course a movie is only as good as its actors, and the Coens have picked one of the best actors working today. Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed, and it’s extremely difficult to imagine a better actor for the part. Thornton has the perfect face for the role — old, lined, weary, and as calm as a brick wall. He also happens to have the perfect voice for narration — whispery, quiet, and completely emotionless. Thornton’s Ed is a barber by profession, but he’s a lost soul by birth. Ed has no idea where he’s going, where he’s been, or even where he is at the moment. He walks from moment to moment, unsure about the in-between or what’s in front of him. The film moves in a similar fashion, sometimes skipping between past and present, and sometimes straying off the main road into unexpected detours. Even those who know their Film Noirs won’t be able to predict the twists and turns here. I dare you to try.
Among the fabulous cast is Frances McDormand (who, incidentally, is married to one of the Coens, although I don’t remember who), who plays Doris. Doris, like every other person in the movie, really has no idea Ed is there. Oh sure, she (and they) sees him and she talks to him, but Ed mind as well be scenery. He’s a peripheral person, purely for background usage. Doris claims she loves him, but she mind as well be talking to empty air for all the response she gets out of him — and truly, her declaration is probably just as meaningless as her real feelings for him.
Rounding out the cast is Michael Badalucco (TV’s “The Practice) as Frank, Ed’s co-barber and brother-in-law. Frank is the opposite of Ed; he knows who he is, where he is, and he’s completely satisfied with himself — in a way, Ed wishes he was more like Frank. He wishes he could be that secure in himself, in his place. Tony Shalboub shows up as the improbably named Freddy Riedenschneider, a fast-talking lawyer from San Diego who comes to town to defend various people of murder charges. Freddy is slick, ruthless, and completely unconcern about the truth, and Shalboub plays him perfectly.
I’m hesitant to say too much about the movie’s plot beyond the premise. The film deserves to be discovered as much for its unpredictable twists as for its fine craftsmanship by all those involved. While not a life-shattering movie, it proves, once again, that the Coens are two of the best filmmakers working today. Eat your heart out Wachowski brothers.
Joel Coen (director) / Joel Coen, Ethan Coen (screenplay)
CAST: Billy Bob Thornton …. Ed
Frances McDormand …. Doris
Michael Badalucco …. Frank
James Gandolfini …. Big Dave
Katherine Borowitz …. Ann Nirdlinger
Jon Polito …. Creighton Tolliver
Scarlett Johansson …. Birdy Abundas