1949, Santa Rosa, California. A laconic, chain-smoking barber with fallen arches tells a story of a man trying to escape a humdrum life. It's a tale of suspected adultery, blackmail, foul play, death, Sacramento city slickers, racial slurs, invented war heroics, shaved legs, a gamine piano player, aliens, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Ed Crane cuts hair in his in-law's shop; his wife drinks and may be having an affair with her boss, Big Dave, who has $10,000 to invest in a second department store. Ed gets wind of a chance to make money in dry cleaning. Blackmail and investment are his opportunity to be more than a man no one notices. Settle in the chair and listen. Written by
Billy Bob Thornton has the perfect face for film noir. His craggy, drawn features lead up to sunken but large and staring eyes, and cheeks that look to be made out of plaster. Particularly when shot in black and white, his face becomes a landscape of shifting shadows, while he doesn't move a muscle. He is able to give the impression of a man at war with himself even while sitting perfectly still and staring ahead. He's Jeremy Irons, only without that unsettling accent. The Coen brothers take great advantage of their stars' granite physiognomy throughout "The Man That Wasn't There," constructing several shots around Thornton staring into a point just slightly away from the camera, impassive as an Easter Island head, moving only to smoke an ever-present cigarette while the obligatory noir voice-over narration runs. His voice is perfect, too: a kind of calm, measured rumbling, which describes incredible events but never seems amazed by them. Thornton says "I don't talk much," and it's true: he doesn't do much either, but he is still fascinating, and commands our attention.
The Coens take great relish in the noir conventions, even beyond the 1940s setting and the black and white photography (let's face it, we're so used to '40s movies in black and white that color would look a little weird). The story follows classic lines (with a few wild divergences): Thornton's character is a barber in one of those small postwar California towns that Hitchcock was so enamored of. He comes up with a scheme to raise some money, which naturally spins a little beyond what he anticipated. That's all I can say in good conscience, and the plot goes pretty far afield (I mean REALLY far afield, catering to fans both of Dashiell Hammett and "Earth vs. the Flying Saucers"). But really, you know what to expect, if you've ever seen one of these movies before: greed, dark secrets, and murder, in a world of fedoras, cigarette smoke, snapping lighters, and deep moral turpitude. A world where nothing or no one is what they seem, and the only sure thing is that, in the end, some sap is gonna get it.
As good as Thornton is, he can't carry the movie alone. Fortunately, he is surrounded by a top-notch cast, including a lot of familiar Coen veterans, and it is this that really makes this movie work. Michael Badalucco puts in a hilarious turn as Thornton's gabby brother-in-law, Frances McDormand is effective in her relatively few scenes as his brittle wife, and James Gandolfini plays yet another boorish tough guy to a turn. Practically shoplifting the movie is Tony Shalhoub, playing a fast-talking Sacramento lawyer who doesn't so much speak as summate. His discussion of Heisenberg is almost worth the ticket price alone. Christopher Kriesa and Brian Haley get a lot of mileage out of their brief appearances as a pair of slightly dim cops (aren't they all in these movies?)
Joel Coen, who directed, makes sure that the movie is consistently interesting to watch, too. Black and white photography being mostly about shades of gray, noir is perhaps the only genre that benefits from the relative primitiveness of its visual technology. Coen, therefore, sticks with it, unlike the colors he used in the '30s themed "O Brother Where Art Thou?" which managed to be both more fanciful and less surreal than this movie. He uses the light-and-shadow character of black and white to great effect here, carefully crafting his images to make best use of it. In fact, if the movie has a fault, it's that the images are a little TOO carefully crafted. The purest noir was cleverly filmed, but it allowed its cleverness to seep into the background. You have to watch a few times to pick up on how sharp the filmmaking is. Coen is unable to hide his arty cleverness, and so in the end, fun as it is to watch, the movie is a bit too pretty to truly capture the essence of its forbears. Perhaps realizing this, the Coens tweak the conventions mercilessly, and inject a streak of humor that is funnier for being played so straight (there are lots of funny lines, but don't be surprised if you are the only one in the theater laughing. Actually, don't be surprised if you are the only one in the theater, period.) The movie does require a bit of patience; the pacing is intense but quite slow, and the story wanders like a drunk driver. In the end, it is somewhat debatable whether the twisty plot is fully resolved, or whether that even matters. "The Man That Wasn't There" is best viewed as a wicked cinematic joke, and in that regard, it succeeds, in (Sam) spades.
But what do I know? I'm just some sap.
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