A laconic, chain-smoking barber blackmails his wife’s boss and lover for money to invest in dry cleaning, but his plan goes terribly wrong.
The Man Who Wasn’t There follows themes explored in previous films by the Coen Brothers, around the nature of decisions, and how a seemingly straightforward choice can lead to negative consequences further down the line. ‘No Country for Old Men’, which I’ll review in a few weeks, is the finest example of this, but ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ explores this theme in a slightly different way, through the calm and collected Ed Crane, expertly played by Billy Bob Thornton.
Ed Crane is a barber in Santa Rosa, California, working in a shop owned by his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco). His wife, Doris (Frances McDormand) has a drinking problem, and Ed suspects she is having an affair with her boss at the department store where she works, Big Dave (James Gandolfini). When he encounters a customer with an interesting business proposition, he decides to get the money required by blackmailing Big Dave. The events that follow are those which spiral from that initial decision, and this simple ploy to get some money causes trouble beyond Ed’s worst expectations.
Where Ed Crane differs from similar Coen Brothers protagonists is in his quiet and calm demeanour. His protagonists in films such as ‘Blood Simple’, ‘Fargo’ and ‘No Country for Old Men’, panic when things go awry, which ultimately leads to their fate. Crane is much more composed, and whilst his idea doesn’t go according to plan, he carries on with his life and it seems as if things are working out for him. A lot of this is down to Thornton’s cool performance, and the use of narrative voiceover to depict his thoughts – Crane is a low key, internal man and Thornton plays him as such. The larger than life characters are played by the support, from energetic lawyer Freddy (Tony Shalhoub) to Big Dave, and potential business partner Creighton Tolliver (another memorable role for Coen regular Jon Polito).
This is perhaps where I never fell in love with the film. The initial half hour is tense and exciting, but the story loses a lot of its zip after a key moment fairly early on, and this is where the decision to play Ed Crane so straight laced and alienating doesn’t work in the film’s favour. Thornton is of course excellent, but I think the film would have benefited from the manic intensity of say, William H. Macy in ‘Fargo’, to propel the latter part of the film.
One thing I did love was the cinematography and the choice to shoot in black and white, which gives the film an old fashioned quality, and helps to depict the era the film is set in. The use of black and white was always at its finest in the classic film noir’s, when a skilled director could light the character’s faces in different ways to emphasise the atmosphere or the situation. There’s a scene in this film which really showcases this quality, when Ed and Big Dave have a conversation in the department store office.
Overall, my interest in the film lessened after an excellent opening half hour, but the film still had many qualities and was another interesting watch. ‘Intolerable Cruelty’ is next for me, and I’ll be back with a review of that one next week.
Directed By: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Michael Badalucco, Scarlett Johansson, Richard Jenkins, Tony Shalhoub and Jon Polito