The Coen Brothers have never been all that far from film noir, with works like Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing (an almost plagiaristic rethinking of Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Glass Key), Barton Fink and Fargo. Even The Big Lebowski turns briefly into an exercise in classic noir for part of its length. But with The Man Who Wasn’t There, they take the final step and create their own deliberate version of the genre — complete with glowing black-and-white cinematography and the requisite first-person narration. The results are both brilliant and flawed. The thing is, even the flaws are brilliant — to a degree that it might be wrong to call them flaws. The film is about 30 minutes longer than its storyline bears, but the Coens have their reasons, because they’ve not only made a noir; they’ve made it into something a little more — something quirky and wholly their own. They’ve made a noir for our time, even while setting it in the past. Characters in noir films of the 1940s (the genre’s heyday) often seemed out of kilter with the world around them. The Coens take this disaffected quality and add to it in a way that would be unthinkable for a 1940s film. (Saying more than this would rob the film of part of its surprise.) There’s also some question about whether or not it’s really possible to latch onto a character as completely disaffected as Billy Bob Thornton’s seemingly emotionless barber. And there’s no denying that it is hard to connect with the character, but then again, identification was never a mainstay with the genre. The Coens have merely taken that one step further — and then they subvert that by suggesting that the character is a lot more human than he appears on the surface, more so than he realizes himself. It’s a grim, bitter, ironic picture, yet one that is both cinematically playful and rich in the kind of offhandedly memorable dialogue that’s been a mainstay of the brothers’ work from the onset. Their plot — before embellishment — is basic noir, with a non-entity character, Ed Crane (Thornton), who becoming embroiled in a scheme that’s out of his depth and situations that he’s just not equipped to handle (not the least of which is an adulterous wife). The embellishments — along with Joel Coen’s directorial stylishness — are what make the film great. The plot twists and turns at every opportunity, and each and every such twist is a true surprise. Some of those surprises are, in fact, startling. As filmmaking, it’s all about style, as you might expect from Joel Coen, but it’s probably the Coen picture where style and substance are the most completely integrated. While the best of Coen’s work has always relied heavily on stylish direction, a lot of it would work — though not as well — in a more simplified presentation. The Man Who Wasn’t There wouldn’t. Of course, that’s partly because noir has as much to do with a look and a feel as it has to do with any thematic quality. Beyond this, though, much of what the film conveys is subtly and cleverly revealed in the style — pay particular attention to the way Coen uses the genre mainstay of shadows. It’s a rich, strange, rewarding film. Even for the Coen Brothers, it takes significant risks that are apt to keep it out of the mainstream. (In some ways, the film of 2001 it most resembles is David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, though it’s considerably less extreme.) Is it their best film to date? Probably not. I’d lean more toward handing that accolade to Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink or, most of all, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but it’s not much below that select group. It’s also further evidence that the Coens keep growing as filmmakers, making it essential viewing for anyone who cares about film.
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