There are usually two kinds of Coen Brothers films. One kind is their wild, brilliant pictures of insanity. The other is their wild, brilliant, arty pictures of insanity. Though engrossing, beautiful to look at and respectable as a viable slice of filmmaking, "The Man Who Wasn't There" (IMDb listing) is unfortunately a little more "Barton Fink" than "Fargo."
Set in the 1940s, "The Man Who Wasn't There" stars Billy Bob Thornton as Ed, a quiet, solemn barber stuck in postwar suburban hell. Though generally powerless to the whirlwind needs of his wife (Frances McDormand), Ed soon finds himself faced with an opportunity when a traveling salesman (Joe Polito) comes into the barbershop with an offer to help start a dry cleaning business. Short the starting cash, Ed blackmails Big Dave (James Gandolfini), the local department store kingpin who has been sleeping with his wife. When the blackmail goes horribly wrong, Ed must face the consequences as his stable, yet suffocating world begins to crumble around him.
Though a criticism of the Coen Brothers' rather erratic track record is long overdue, I can't fault "The Man Who Wasn't There" for being so eluding. It really is hypnotic filmmaking from two of cinema's most innovative creative forces. Going for a "Double Indemnity" feel to their story, the Brothers saturate the film with style and an almost obscene amount of mood. The screen is alive with the texture, the sounds and the smoke of the era. So much so that it puts the claustrophobia of "Barton Fink" to shame.
Unfortunately, "Man" does suffer some of the same narrative extravagance as "Barton Fink." Though simple in theory, the story for "Man" wanders shamelessly around. Covering everything from barber shop ethics to (literal) flying saucers, there is only so much one can take before you start to lose interest. The Coens are famous for the liberal way they veer off the track now and again, but they are playing by noir standards this time out, thus retaining noir pacing. "Man" is often terribly slow, and without a main artery of story to see it through, it isn't always compelling material.
Obviously the most outstanding work of the film comes from cinematographer Roger Deakins and his luxurious black and white photography. It is extraordinary to behold, as the time and effort that goes into the lighting schemes and camera placement looks as though it took years to perfect. Deakins captures the mood through shadows and heaps of cigarette smoke, making each scene stand alone with its sumptuous lighting design. It goes without saying that Deakins should win an Oscar for his photography here, but more importantly, the Coen Brothers' story would be lost without his fabulous work.
Though he provides the narration for the film, Billy Bob Thornton walks through "Man" with almost no dialog. A character who is meek in social situations, Ed almost doesn't need to talk as all the characters who surround him will do all the conversing for him. Thornton makes a surprisingly solid noir character, with his endless stream of cigarettes and inability to change his facial disposition. It's a steady performance from an actor that has made a name for himself portraying oddities and loudmouths.
The Coens have less luck with the supporting cast, save for Tony Shalhoub as a fast-talking, condescending lawyer and Scarlett Johansson as Ed's "Lolita" type obsession. The biggest wonder of the picture is that they don't find much for Frances McDormand to do. Sure, she has some good scenes as a woman torn between her need for success in the world and her familiar husband, but McDormand doesn't make the impression I was hoping for, or even expecting. Always one to raise the standards of any film she appears in, McDormand just doesn't have the groundwork one might expect the Coens to provide to make a serious impression in "The Man Who Wasn't There."
"The Man Who Wasn't There" is a passable Coen offering that clearly showcases the need of the Brothers to balance upbeat, more mass entertainment pictures ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?," "The Big Lebowski") with little slabs of brood that actually seem closer to their heart.
Filmfodder Grade: B