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'The Man Who Wasn't There'

The Coens and Billy Bob are at their hypnotic best in noir thriller

Friday, November 16, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

The title character in "The Man Who Wasn't There" works as a barber in his brother-in-law's shop, lives in a tract bungalow in a small town in California and is married to a woman portrayed by Frances McDormand.

'The Man Who Wasn't There'

RATING: R for a scene of violence

STARRING: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini


WEB SITE: www.themanwho



"You might say I had it made," Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) tells us in the voiceover narration. In fact, he amounts to nothing and he knows it. He wants to be something. That, of course, turns out to be his fatal mistake.

"The Man Who Wasn't There" takes us on another fateful and memorable journey with filmmaker brothers Joel and Ethan Coen through the hungry heart of the American landscape.

They claim inspiration by a barbershop poster of the 1940s and by the works of James M. Cain, the novelist who created the hard-boiled classics "Double Indemnity," "Mildred Pierce" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice." The movie sets up in Cain territory -- Santa Rosa, Calif., circa 1949, and an ordinary man done in by ambitions a size too large for him.

A loquacious customer (Jon Polito) is looking for an investor in a dry-cleaning business. Ed, who can't or won't see that the guy is as phony as his fancy toupee, sees an opportunity. He decides to get the money by blackmailing his wife's boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini), with whom she is having an affair.

That decision starts a chain reaction of wholly unexpected developments that affect everyone around him. Just as one complication appears to be playing itself out, another shock wave hits. Each twist proves as deliciously ironic as anything Rod Serling ever concocted on "The Twilight Zone."

By film's end, everyone is punished in one way or another -- but not for the offense they are actually guilty of committing. Hitchcock, among other wryly cynical philosophers on the human condition, would have approved.

And, for once, the Coens don't play it for laughs unless you think they consider the whole scenario to be a great cosmic joke. This is a tragedy about a man too insignificant to be tragic. The wheels of fate turn in spite of him, even though he bears responsibility for what transpires. He goes through the motions of trying to affect the outcome, but you can hardly tell whether it matters to him.

What does matter is the way in which the Coens and their actors transport us into a world of their own making. The filmmakers decided to shoot it in black and white but cinematographer Roger Deakins doesn't use the direct light that created all the kind of vivid shadows prevalent in films from the 1940s.

Instead, he uses a softer light that lets the whiteness dominate to create a kind of soft focus that, along with the costumes and set design, evokes a feeling of the past that isn't nostalgic, an attitude of languor without the summer heat usually associated with it.

After a while, the movie takes on a dreamlike quality that becomes almost hypnotic later on, when the strains of Beethoven's "Pathetique" sonata turn into a motif that underlines much of the second half of the movie.

Some filmgoers may fidget at the movie's deliberate pace, but when the lead character is as passive as Ed Crane, what else would be appropriate? Thornton reminds us once again that he's not just a Hollywood eccentric but a first-rate actor by disappearing into the persona of this thin, stern-faced man who suppresses his emotions into a mask that looks like indifference.

McDormand plays a harder, angrier woman than usual, while Gandolfini is all bluff and bluster until the blackmail note brings Big Dave down to size.

Polito seems perpetually sweaty as the would-be dry-cleaning magnate. Tony Shaloub plays a high-priced lawyer who would have fit right in on O.J. Simpson's dream team, and Scarlett Johansson is almost luminous as the teen-age daughter of Crane's personal attorney. The scene in which Ed comes upon her playing the "Pathetique" on a piano in a department-store gallery is one of the prettiest scenes in the film.

"The Man Who Wasn't There" tied for the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival, and little wonder. The Coens certainly know how to weave a spell.

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