The Coen brothers have lost their balance. After hitting their structural peak with the haunting and humanistic Fargo and their creative peak with the gutbustingly sublime The Big Lebowski, they took a sharp downward turn in their next film, last year’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? Lapsing into The Hudsucker Proxy mode, the duo labored on O Brother under the impression that thematic depth and high production values could redeem a film which would otherwise be dismissed as light, predictable entertainment.
This same virus remains on the loose in their latest, The Man Who Wasn’t There, an austere black-and-white pulp homage set in the late forties. The Coens’ incomparable gift for dialogue, still with them in O Brother, has largely deserted them here. This talent, long used to capture the bizarre natterings of hicks, drifters and executives, is mostly dismissed in the low-key The Man Who Wasn’t There as a vestigial skill.
The film, after all, is seen through the eyes of Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a quiet small-town barber who manages to remain taciturn even as the film’s narrator. Instead of talking, he observes and listens. In this way, he learns that his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini). And by listening to an entrepreneur (Jon Polito) seeking funding for a dry cleaning venture, Ed decides to break out of his hair-cutting rut and put up the money.
Ed gets his money by anonymously blackmailing Big Dave, who is a department store player by marriage. The train wreck of ensuing events, though often unpredictable and rife with irony, too obviously functions as a frame for a reverential parade of largely tiresome symbols and ideas. There’s something for everyone: religious satire for the agnostics, a bumbling justice system for the cynics and a hands-as-plot-catalyst pattern for the hand fetishists.
But the Coens’ apparent thematic piece de resistance centers around Ed’s not entirely willing separation from humanity. The film’s title is a gateway, but everything from Ed’s companionship-without-communication marriage to his job—mirrors notwithstanding, a customer doesn’t see a barber at work—means to firm up the point. The Coens make some uncharacteristically naked stabs at developing this idea—a young pianist remarks to Ed that she doesn’t mind errors at a recital if they go unobserved; Ed, eager to quit barbering and join the human race, even goes so far as to describe himself as a ghost, watching other people “struggling down below.”
These ideas, however, spring more out of the creators’ minds than those of the characters, whose psyches are of distinctly dull (though not uniformly dull-witted) quality. Though the Coens need to maintain a certain level of banality as a concession to the pulp genre, they drive their characters so far into the second dimension that there’s not much reason to take an interest in the players at any point.
The actors act out stereotypes as directed. On the overacting side of the spectrum sit Michael Badalucco as Doris’ portly dolt of a brother and Polito as the comical entrepreneur. Thornton, on the other hand, is so dry that he makes Clint Eastwood looks like Richard Simmons, and McDormand is positively wasted as a dull pawn of Ed’s and the Coens’ plottings. Gandolfini, never better than when flaunting a corker of a malicious smile, lingers securely in the middle of the scale. Tony Shalhoub makes the film’s best showing as an improbably shrewd big-city lawyer with the terrific name of Freddy Riedenschneider. Shalhoub’s smart refusal to push the role over the top makes the character significantly more compelling, and he even manages to enliven a lengthy rumination on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.
Composer Carter Burwell turns in another of his hauntingly cycling scores, delving into the sense of intrigue evoked by the string instruments. Roger Deakins, Oscar-nominated for his golden-hued cinematography on O Brother, turns in similarly stellar monochromatic work here; every shot is crisp and pristine, bursting with an expressively noir-ish atmosphere.
It’s a mark, however, of the defects within The Man Who Wasn’t There that it is the first Coen film without a single perfect scene. Blood Simple has at least four; Fargo, more than a dozen. But those films took their energy more from the ideals of their characters than the Coens’ love of subtext. It’s telling that The Man Who Wasn’t There’s best scene, in which Riedenschneider constructs an initial defense, is chiefly powered by Riedenschneider’s instincts, and not solely by the Coens’ desire to prove a certain point. Most of the rest of the film just shuffles along, dropping in on events as they happen and skipping over what’s between them. Doubtless, in the interim, Ed and the others just sit around, smoking cigarettes, and not thinking about anything particularly interesting.
The man who wasn’t there
Billy Bob Thornton