The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
It has been sometime since I have seen a Coen Brother film, having seen almost all of them. I knew vaguely of The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) which when you think of Joel and Ethan Coen‘s films you think more of Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998). Yet when you place this film up against Barton Fink (1991) and Millers Crossing (1990) it makes a lot more sense. One of the few films made in the last twenty years to be made in black and white, not just a simple removal of colour, but a creative choice that opens up a new world to explore, set during the summer of 1949 when one man, an outsider enters a world that is out of his depth, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) seems to drift into situation after situation without any real emotional attachment to the events as they unfold, he’s just there. Which makes sense when you look at the title. For the first Bob Thornton film (after giving up on A Simple Plan (1998) which saw a far wackier character)
We found a man settled into a marriage of convenience working as a barber with his brother-in-law. Whilst his wife Doris Crane (Frances McDormand) who works at a department store is having an affair with her boss Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini). All this is very clear in the noirish narration by Bob Thornton in a dead-pan voice who sets the tone for the entire picture. Which on first watch we have no idea where we will find Ed Crane. It’s all in the slow build up that brings us to each event. This is the first real event that is on the simmer when the idea of entering into a dry-cleaning business. Now everything is starting to intertwine with each other which makes for a rich plot.
The first major blow in the film is the murder that sees Ed’s world turned upside down, he’ll go to prison and then that’s it, curtains for our character who just wonders. That’s until you remember we’re in the hands of the Coen’s and so comes the first big twist that leaves you shocked at what our characters are capable of, before slumping back into the dull-drums of life. Set within the stylized world of film-noir lighting and cinematography that makes such a dull film on the surface so rich, engaging and different from other films. The audience has to be more patient with this slow burner of a film that just keeps on teasing out little bits, events and characters that make the running time worth it.
Ed’s main fight is to see is wife freed from certain death, with the best lawyer in the area Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) who is a man aware of his own reputation, letting that lead his case more than his litigation skills, which makes for some bewildering scenes that Shalhoub steals. Turning then to a young Scarlett Johansson who in her minimal role as a young family friend Birdy Abundas a girl who Ed really takes a shine to, seeing hope in her that he has lost in his own life. The potential for a better life is in this small part, and Johansson really comes into her own, a few years before she has greater success with Lost in Translation (2003).
Overall this much forgotten film is very much the two brothers experimenting with film more, the look of an old genre and placing that into their screwed up world where again, nothing make sense before it does make sense. It’s not going to set the world a light, but it will do what the brothers are good at, keeping you on your toes, never knowing where it will lead you next. There are some touching moments visually that are a treat for the eyes. If only it was seen in the same light as their better known work.
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