[box cover]

The Man Who Wasn't There

USA Home Entertainment

Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Tony Shalhoub,
James Gandolfini, and Scarlett Johansson

Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Directed by Joel Coen

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Joel and Ethan Coen are the most cunning pranksters of American cinema. Their body of work since their 1985 debut Blood Simple is often stunning, frequently hilarious, undeniably unique and, at the same time, consistently bewildering. That, of course, is a crucial part of their charm: their playful mangling of pop Americana and winking intellectual pulp is unfalteringly executed with brilliant aesthetic mastery. So many of their films hop blithely from side to side of the broad line separating great art and slapstick foolery that when the sensational rush of viewing one of their films drains away, one is commonly left with the question, "What the goofus was that?"

The Man Who Wasn't There, as the Coen Brothers gleefully explain it, is the story of a barber who wants to be a drycleaner. That mundane description is an artful tease. Whether small town barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) actually wants to be a drycleaner is open to debate. Whether Ed Crane wants anything is open to question. He is a cipher; barely a factor in anyone else's life, let alone his own. Ed silently drifts through his own being, rarely acting and barely reacting, making only the slightest physical impression, like an inert gas in a gray suit. When he does finally engage, and then only negligibly, everything around him explodes. Everything except Ed Crane, the barber, the man who wasn't there.

Shot like a 1940s film noir potboiler but brimming with Camus-raping existential dread, The Man Who Wasn't There is, by necessity, the least energetic of the Coens' wacky oeuvre, but it is nevertheless one of their richest, most captivating movies, simply for its exactingly thorough portrait of human impotence. Everything that defines Ed is negative: his job is stagnant and futile (the hair grows back); his wife (Frances McDormand) regards him as a utility; while those around him loudly indulge in passions and emotions, Ed remains wooden and unruffled (even his own moments of personal upheaval are dominated by the outbursts of strangers); when Ed does act he receives no credit; his investments are made with others' capital and never realized; when he does show an interest in life it is is denied; he is completely detached from the steering of his own fate; and when he is finally recognized, it is a mistake. The complete thematic assault on Ed Crane's existence is dazzling, and if it sounds like a snooze, the events swirling around this blank character involve adultery, blackmail and murder, all fashioned with the Coens' typically quirky and striking scenarism and humor.

Thornton is incredible. Stuck in the difficult position of carrying a film with a passive character, he is both striking and transparent. His strict features engage while he stares blankly into space. His stillness is riveting. It is a brilliantly withdrawn performance from one of the most interesting, creative actors around. The great supporting cast more than compensates for Ed Crane's negative presence. McDormand, always terrific, is tough and brassy as Ed's cheating wife, and the moment during which she notices Ed as if for the first time in years is heartbreaking. James Gandolfini, Jon Polito and Michael Badalucco each add blustery counterpoint to Thornton's placid demeanor, and Tony Shalhoub dominates as a sharply written filibustering defense lawyer. Also with Scarlett Johansson as piano-playing teenager with a mysterious affinity for Ed, Richard Jenkins as her tipsy, resigned father, and Katherine Borowitz as Gandolfini's spooked wife. As usual, the film is also stocked with odd and visually captivating bit actors and extras, making even the briefest performances something to savor.

*          *          *

As Coen Brothers films go, The Man Who Wasn't There is amongst their least accessible, and the combined slow pacing, undynamic central character and non-formulaic ending may leave impatient viewers adrift. Fans of the more obscure Coen Brothers films, such as Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski, however, should find plenty to absorb in this highly unusual experiment in theme. Of course, post-film puzzlement is part of the fun of watching The Man Who Wasn't There, and one always has to wonder if the Coens do have some concealed meaning simmering behind their engaging and irreverent vision, or if they're simply having a laugh.

The ostentatious show-offs in this endeavor are director of photography Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner. The black-and-white cinematography is deep, sharp and rich, vividly recreating the 1940s' chiaroscuro style, while Gassner and art director Chris Gorak create a textured, vibrant look for the film with a peculiar eye for subtly outlandish detail. The gorgeous anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) does them all proud. Lurching music by Coens' favorite Carter Burwell, along with similarly accomplished composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, is also well served by a crisp Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix.

There are some good extra features on this DVD, including a commentary worthy of kings. Joel and Ethan Coen are joined by star Thornton in an affectionate, funny, and informative track more candid and jovial than most. All three regard the film with a fair degree of pride and irreverence and also share some funny behind-the-scenes anecdotes (the entire story was inspired by a vintage poster of hairstyles) and insightful comments. There are also two interview featurettes, the first of which (16:23) is an artlessly cobbled series of soundbites from the principal cast and crew members with a few clips of random on-set footage. The clips are all too short to offer any real value, but Thornton does amusingly assert that the Coen Brothers "don't suck," and the Coens themselves enjoy understating the content of their movie. The other featurette is a much more in-depth interview with charming director of photography Roger Deakins (46:16), during which he discusses the pleasures and problems of shooting in black-and-white, his visual influences, and his experience working with the Coen Brothers on six films. The five deleted scenes on this disc, however, can leave die-hard fans feeling cheated, even though it's in keeping with the Coen sense of humor: four of the excised clips are less than 15 seconds long, and one of them is simply a shot of a salad. The best of the group is Tony Shalhoub forcefully delivering a nonsensical legal argument (3:19). Also here are a photo gallery, trailers, and TV spots.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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