The Man Who Wasn’t There

The Man Is All There
Originally reviewed November, 2001

I am a Coen Brothers fan. I’ll state it right out. Ever since I saw Barton Fink in 1991, Joel Coen (Director and Co-Screenwriter) and Ethan Coen (Producer and Co-Screenwriter) have been the only filmmakers that matter for me. And when Fargo, their masterpiece of 1996, finally got them the recognition they so long deserved, it was only fitting, but still not enough. The Man Who Wasn’t There is the second Coen Brothers film since Fargo, and, much like their first one, last year’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, this film is suffering from the post-Fargo syndrome. People are now flocking to Coen Brothers films, hoping to see Fargo again, in some different shape or look, only to be confused and disappointed with the bizarre, strange thing they are watching. Those who don’t know the Coen Brothers don’t know their essential element: you never really know what you’ll be seeing and you’ll never see the same thing twice.

Although there are themes common to several of their films, no two Coen films are alike. Blood Simple was a film noir. Raising Arizona was a slapstick comedy. Miller’s Crossing was a gangster drama. Barton Fink was a surreal character drama. The Hudsucker Proxy was a cunning satire. The Big Lebowski was a low-brow comedy. Fargo was a mystery/thriller/drama. O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a bizarre epic comedy. And now, The Man Who Wasn’t There is another genre again to itself. While it is most like Barton Fink, its black-and-white look and bold use of light and shadow make it feel more like film noir than anything else. Yes, the one thing you can expect from the Coen Brothers is the unexpected.

Another thing I will say for certain is that the Coen Brothers are an acquired taste. You’ll either love their movies or hate them. The Man Who Wasn’t There is a classic Coen Brothers film in that you leave the theatre scratching your head, wondering what it was that you just watched. But it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. And the journey through a Coen film is so compelling and serpentine that it truly reminds you that film can indeed be an art form.

The Man Who Wasn’t There is set in 1950s Santa Rosa, California. Billy Bob Thornton stars as a barber who blends into the background in this small suburban town. In a loveless marriage with his selfish wife (played by the always wonderful Frances McDormand) and working a boring job with his talk-aholic boss (played by The Practice’s Michael Badalucco), Ed is just living his life day by day, until his one act of defiance sets in motion a string of events he could never possibly have imagined.

The Man Who Wasn’t There not only visits some common themes of Coen films: violence, odd characters, and small town dynamics, but it also contains the one common denominator of all Coen films: top-notch acting. (The Coens are responsible for bringing us one of the most delightful actresses of our time, Frances McDormand, who won an Oscar for her performance in Fargo. She also happens to be Joel Coen’s wife.) Their films are character-driven and feature off-beat characters. Coen movies are virtual playgrounds for talented actors and they have feasted on the screenplays full of delectable moments and bizarre humor. John Turturro in Barton Fink, Tim Robbins in Hudsucker Proxy, Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona, William H. Macy in Fargo, these are some of the brilliant performances turned in in Coen Brothers films. But perhaps the best performance yet is the one they get out of Billy Bob Thornton in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Thornton easily delivers his best performance since Slingblade.

What makes Thornton such a wonderful actor is his ability to disappear into a character. You can hardly tell that it’s Billy Bob Thornton, so you actually believe that he’s whatever character he is playing. His performance in The Man Who Wasn’t There is so subtle, it almost puts you to sleep before you realize the genius that’s at work. His acting is so quiet, he is seemingly overpowered by the more colorful characters around him, but his performance is so moving and deep that it makes you want to stop all the others from talking so you can just watch him. And the Coens know this too, as much of the film is spent on lingering long shots of Thornton just being still, while the world he has set in motion spins around him. It is the genius of the Coens that they have this ability to guide the subtle through the trees of the bombastic. You saw it in Barton Fink and it rises again here.

Special mention must to go the performance of Tony Shalhoub, who delivers the quintessential Coen performance: so over the top it almost seems real.

But it is really Thornton’s movie and he deserves an Oscar nomination for it. But I fear this performance, and this film, will disappear long before the award season gets in full gear. Coen Brothers films are destined forever, despite Fargo’s success, to the independent theatre down the block, not the multiplex in the mall. And that’s just fine with me.

My rating: **** Worth standing in line