While the Coen brothers’ new film, The Man Who Wasn’t There, is seen in black and white, their title character can be seen as neither.
Ed Crane, in a brilliantly understated performance by Billy Bob Thornton, is instead perpetually stuck in a gray area, much like the cloud of smoke that exudes from the lit cigarette that he smokes in nearly every frame of this tribute to “film noir” set in 1949.
Although every part of this film is beautifully shot, magnificently written and effectively acted, the mediocre whole unfortunately doesn’t reflect the supposed sum of its exceptional parts.
Nothing comes easy for Ed, and yet he doesn’t struggle to change that. Similar to The Dude – another passive character created by Joel and Ethan Coen in their divine 1998 comedy The Big Lebowski – Ed lives his life on cruise control and rarely switches gears. The difference between the two uncommon heroes is Ed’s disdain for his pathetic existence.
An unhappy barber who stumbled upon his career by way of his brother-in-law, Ed cuts hair, smokes cigarettes, reads the paper and goes home. His wife, in an over-the-top performance by
Frances McDormand, is cheating on him with her boss, an underused James Gandolfini, the owner of a department store. And Ed doesn’t care.
In fact, it appears he is unattached from everything until the day a pushy entrepreneur sits in his barber chair and tells him about the new invention of dry cleaning. But just as soon as the proverbial light bulb goes off in his head, Ed gets himself caught up in a deadly, blackmail scheme that dominos into homicides, suicide and eventually execution, with a car wreck and a few murder trials along the way. Throughout the film, he doesn’t care.
And the conundrum is that, eventually, we don’t either. The Coens said they liked the idea of following the mishaps of “modern man.” Instead of telling a crime story about mean people doing nasty things, they said they wanted to focus on the day-to-day business of an ordinary man, such as a banker, insurance salesman or barber.
Although the noble intent is fascinating and rarely utilized, passion and ambition are vital components to a compelling character. And while they succeeded in Lebowski by using this mold, there was at least a more evident story there.
At the core of this story, we have nothing more than an in-depth character study. Recent films, such as The Talented Mr. Ripley and The Big Kahuna, also attempted this approach; however, they also met the same fate. And although solid performances will always make for passable entertainment, more is needed to sustain the narrative flow of a feature film.
While lack of story, other than the dissection of a disgruntled barber, hurts the enjoyment of the film, we are nonetheless treated to one of the most remarkable visual cinematic treasures of recent years. The film feeds off the success of its highly effective use of shading, as well as rich blacks and whites that almost come across as cream tones, which are as pleasant to the eye as any color film made today.
But the film’s beautiful look is only a facade hiding a less than stellar counter-product. You get the sense you are watching something special, and yet as the hollow walls of a failed life crumble, our emotionless hero simply gazes off into the distance and smokes a cigarette.
And maybe that’s what the Coens intended. There’s no question they are more intelligent than this reviewer; however, I still have to pay to see their films. The Coens once said they make movies for themselves, and it’s merely a bonus if audiences like them as well.
Sometimes they hit, and other times they miss. But just like its title character, The Man Who Wasn’t There remains in a gray area – an uncommon place where good, bad and mediocre can coexist in a beautiful cloud of smoke.
- The Man Who Wasn’t There is Rated R
- Contact William Albritton at firstname.lastname@example.org