The Man Who Wasn’t There

Review Date:
Director: Joel Coen
Writer: Ethan and Joel Coen
Producers: Ethan Coen
Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane, Frances McDormand as Doris Crane, James Gandolfini as Big Dave
It’s the 1940s, it’s small town America and it’s in black and white. The core of this story involves a barber who smokes a lot, doesn’t care too much about much and is pretty sure that his wife is cheating on him with her boss. After a blackmailing scheme goes awry and the boss turns up dead, life changes for everyone.
Do you ever feel like you’re just floating around in life? Like your existence is meant to mean something to someone somewhere, but you’re not exactly sure if your presence in the world is making a difference or worth more than a drop in the bucket? Have you tried a few things out and discovered that ambitiousness is simply not for you? Would you rather just stand around in the background, live your white-picket fence lifestyle and let everyone else go about running society? Well, the main character in this film, played assuredly restrained by Billy Bob Thornton (and yes, he will be nominated for this role and deservedly so), is a man just like that, a man who has seemingly moved along in his life, but not really moved along…know what I mean? He doesn’t talk much, doesn’t lose his temper much, doesn’t involve himself in much of life and seems to be doing little more than dying a little more every day (cough, cough). So what does he do? Well, he “cuts the hair”. That is until the one day that he comes to ask himself this question: “What kind of a man are you?” Is he the type of man who will remain apathetic, uninspired and passive about the world around him, or is he going to give “life” another go, take a shot at something and see if he can get involved again? So he does.

He gets involved in a mystery, he gets involved in a blackmailing scheme, he gets involved in a new “love” interest and he gets involved in life! He gives it his all, tries his darndest to make it work, but much like Jerry Lundegaard from FARGO, shit just doesn’t work out too well for the man. And much like his opinion of the hair-cutting process (“Hair…it just keeps growing. It’s part of us, then we cut it off and throw it away.”), it seems as though some people are better off just letting their hair grow long, rather than cutting it over and over again. Some people are betting off “playing dead”, rather than continuing to fight on when life gets them down. And much like GHOST WORLD (from which we find in this film, actress Scarlett Johansson, playing an innocent teenage temptress), this film taps into a real sense of alienation, a feeling of not belonging, a deep indifference to what life has to offer in terms of materialistic rewards and a cynical, if realistic, appreciation of all things love. This movie was fun and interesting for me to watch from the outside, but if you’re even remotely interested in finding deeper meaning behind many of its film noir contrivances and the 1940s environment, I’m sure you too will have a field day wrestling underneath this one. That first paragraph of mine is just my own rambling theory.

But all fancy-schmancy film analysis aside, this movie is beautiful to look at as well. The black and white cinematography takes you right into the old-school world of the day, the costumes, the cars, the sets, all adding to yet another authentically created Coen bros movie. The score is also pretty haunting and a wonderful addition to the nuances of the main character, especially when he’s just sitting there trying to find his “peace” while listening to the piano. I also liked how many of the characters smoked like chimneys in this flick, and especially the shots of Thornton, who as I mentioned earlier, is basically just killing himself a little more every day, with a cigarette in his mouth at every turn. Some very cool slow-motion shots also create an unhurried feel to the film, and the use of shadows is tremendous, especially as the picture moves along and gets darker in tone and in spirit. And did I mention how it’s also very funny?? I’m serious…despite the film’s darker undertones, it’s actually packed with lots of clever dialogue (as per usual Coens’ style) and had me cracking up at several points (“Was that a pass?”). The characters were also well played by everyone in the cast, especially Tony Shalhoub who was amazing as the fast-talking opportunistic lawyer, and even the “smaller” characters like those two cops who are only there because it’s their “detail” and Gandolfini’s wife, Katherine Borowitz, who comes up with her own interesting theory on the murder.

But the man who holds this entire flick together is Ed Crane, played tremendously here by Billy Bob Thornton, a part for which he seems to have been born to play. He starts the film off with some narration and it isn’t long before you’re hooked into this guy’s plight. He doesn’t talk, smile or emote much, but the simple gestures, the looks on his face, the roll of his eyes, all say what he’s not really saying. I kind of saw this guy as a distant cousin to TAXI DRIVER’s Travis Bickle. Both are disenchanted with the world around them, only Bickle isn’t going to take it anymore, and is ready to involve himself in some change, while Ed just internalizes most of his frustrations and ends up where he ends up. This movie is not for everyone (I seem to be saying this about all of the films that I’ve loved this year…hmmmm), and I can certainly see how some might find it “boring” or “long” or “pointless”, but for me, it was one of the better movie experiences of the year. The Coen bros’ films have always been an acquired taste so if you’re looking for something unique, a film that doesn’t feature gunfights, special effects or a goofy romance, this flick might just be the change of pace that you’re looking for.

(c) 2021 Berge Garabedian

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