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USA Films
Official Site
Director: Joel Coen
Producers: Tim Bevan, John Cameron, Ethan Coen, and Eric Fellner
Written by: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Shalhoub, James Gandolfini

Rating: out of 5

THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE may be the Coen Brothers’ most successful venture into film noir territory to date, a brilliant combination of the taut genre devotion found in BLOOD SIMPLE with the irreverent goofiness of THE BIG LEBOWSKI, resulting in a masterpiece of repressed longing and dastardly deeds gone awry. A work of intense atmosphere that sees the Coens paying homage to the great noirs of the 1950s while simultaneously injecting the material with an off-the-cuff lightheartedness that serves to underscore the film’s oppressively somber mood, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE may be the finest tribute to noir the genre has ever received, a beautiful statement of one man’s insatiable desire to transcend his lifeless existence, and the cruel twists of fate that conspire to punish him for that longing.

The story concerns Ed Crane, a barber with so little to say he appears all but invisible. Ceaselessly puffing on a cigarette, Ed is a man adrift in the world, floating through life with little direction and even less interest in his destination. He’s good at his profession but claims that “I never considered myself a barber.” He has a glamorous wife (McDormand) who doesn’t care much for her lethargic husband, preferring instead to carry on with her department store boss, the garrulous married bigwig Big Dave (Gandolfini). Ed knows of the affair, but, as with most things in his life, seems strangely unaffected.

Nonetheless, when a shady salesman comes through the barbershop searching for suckers to invest in his new dry cleaning scheme, Ed finds the idea irresistible. The man promises to make Ed a partner if he comes up with $10,000, and Ed—who sees in the salesman’s offer a chance to escape his current situation—decides to anonymously blackmail Big Dave for the cash. Ed succeeds in getting the money, but, as one would expect from noir, where attempts to better oneself never result in happy endings, murder, double-crossing, and tragedy ensue, with virtually everyone getting theirs in the end.

Shot by their long-time cinematographer Roger Deakins, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE is a black-and-white masterpiece, a cornucopia of hard angles, moody shadows, and smoky, dimly lit interiors, a stark world in which black and white seem to be brothers in arms, joining forces to keep everything, and everyone, from stepping outside life’s predestined lines. Just as his expansive color work in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? gave that film’s madcap road trip across the South a vibrancy that complemented the film’s glowing, lighthearted tone, so his cool black-and-white work here imbues the film with a chilly, ominous mood of impending dread.

Of course, the Coens themselves should be applauded for finally creating a homage to noir that truly matches the genre’s fatalistic spirit. While there’s humor aplenty—including a hilarious bit involving UFO abductions, as well as an uncomfortable budding relationship between Ed and a local high school girl—and a continuation of the filmmakers’ fascination with Americana, the Coens never waver from their ultimate goal. The film expertly captures that spirit of desperation and futility that drives, and ultimately dooms, all noir protagonists. Ed’s ennui, and subsequent attempt to transcend his mundane existence, is part and parcel with a society (and universe) that teases men with dreams of escape, but punishes them for attempting to fulfill those fantasies.

With a drawn countenance and hollow gaze, a smoke always hanging from his lips, Thornton, in perhaps the finest performance of his career, imbues Ed with a robotic lifelessness, a hollow apathy that allows him to perform his barbershop duties with precision and care, but prevents him from experiencing anything close to fulfillment or enlightenment. Delivering his sparse lines (as well as the voice-over narration Ed provides the film) with a dry, baritone rumble, Thornton taps into a man lost within himself, a detached nobody who, upon his final demise, simply seems to vanish into thin air. For a man who never seemed to be there in the first place, it is an ironic destiny that fits him like a glove.

—Nicholas Schager

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