I’ll start by making a confession: I’ve only recently discovered the Coen brothers. I’ve known about them for a long time (O, Brother Where Art Thou? is a favorite in my family), but have never really given them a chance. I did see True Grit when it was in theaters, but just never looked into their work much beyond that. Recently, however, I was turned toward the Coens by my uncle (he has also pointed me toward a lot of other films as filmmakers, such as Akira Kurosawa) when he showed me The Hudsucker Proxy and Miller’s Crossing. Last week I also watched Fargo, but today I sat down and watched The Man Who Wasn’t There and was absolutely blown away.
First of all, let me stress that film noir is one of my favorite styles of filmmaking and I’ve covered a few of my favorite noir films in the past (Touch of Evil, Following, Pale Flower, M, to name a few), but I was not expected what I got from this film. See, I’ll explain, I don’t like to do too much reading on a film before I watch it. I’ll typically read a synopsis and familiarize myself with the directors/writers, but that’s about it. I like to discover the films as they happen and let them surprise me as they will. So, based on what little I had, I was figuring this would be a strongly directed and written drama from the brothers Coen — I had no idea that I should expected a noir, or much less that it would be in black and white.
Once the opening narration started (and that music!) and the sleek black and white cinematography (captured by the marvelous Roger Deakins) rolled across my screen I knew that I was in for a treat of massive proportions. Not only does this film look like a noir from the 50s, it feels like one, which is a tribute to the art direction and the incredible writing.
I’ve never been a huge Billy Bob Thornton fan (to be fair, I’m just not super familiar with his work), but his performance here is stunning. He plays Ed Crane, a barber fed up with his life and dead-end job (something we can all relate to, right?), and fed up with his wife (Frances McDormand) who is having an affair with her boss (James Gandolfini). One day a crook named Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) walks into the barber shop and while getting a haircut reveals to Crane that he needs an investor for a dry cleaning business he is wanting to open. Crane sees dollar signs, a hope of escape from his life and his world, and he jumps on it: he blackmails his wife’s boss, gets the $10,000 from him and invests it in Tolliver’s business.
This decision, this singular choice that Ed Crane makes sends him into a whirlpool of shady characters and decisions. In true noir fashion it baptizes him into an underworld of crossings and double crossings. All the while we feel for and sympathize with Ed Crane because he is just such a likable schmuck. The truth is no one is particularly nice to Ed, and on top of that Thornton gives such a easy, quiet performance that we feel sorry for him. That doesn’t last for long however.
I will not spoil this movie, no worries, because it must be seen to be believed. Across the board everything is spot on from the terrific walk-on performance of Tony Shalhoub as a fast talking lawyer, the tawdry performance of Frances McDormand as Crane’s wife, all the way to Scarlett Johansson as “Birdy” Abundas, a piano prodigy in one of the film’s more interesting subplots. Everything works, and all of the sidebars and sideplots fit together and work together in such a satisfactory way. It’s just a pleasure to watch this movie. Do it.
Seriously, go watch this right now.