The Man Who Wasn't There

2001, Movie, R, 116 mins


A ravishingly beautiful, widescreen B&W noir pastiche that starts with the classic noir narrative wherein some hapless schmoe gets away with one misdeed but pays for another. The Coen brothers then embellish it with their trademark, supremely self-conscious tone, a cast of eccentrics and even a little UFO nuttiness. But in the end there's no there there. The year is 1949. Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), our hero and voice-over narrator, is a small-town barber, a terse loner married to flirtatious chippie Doris (Frances McDormand) and working in his chatty brother-in-law Frank's (Michael Badalucco) Santa Rosa clip shop. Doris is a bookkeeper at Nirdlinger's, the high-end local department store, and Ed is pretty sure there's more than business going on between his wife and her boss, Big Dave Nirdlinger (James Gandolfini), a glad-handing blowhard who landed his swanky position by marrying tight-lipped heiress Ann Nirdlinger (Katherine Borowitz). In short, Ed's in a hell of a rut, and sees a way out when an oily stranger named Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) blows into the barber shop. Tolliver is peddling a get-rich scheme involving dry cleaning — the wave of the future, he says — and needs investors. Of course, the ante is $10,000, which Ed doesn't have. But he thinks he knows a way to get it: He writes a blackmail note to Big Dave, threatening to expose his affair with Doris. To Ed's morose amazement, Big Dave coughs up the dough. Without revealing the plot's twists and turns, suffice it to say that one act of malfeasance follows another, someone winds up dead and the services of sharpie lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shaloub) are desperately required. Filmed in luminous B&W by frequent Coens-collaborator Roger Deakins, this somber yet smirking pastiche is so glitteringly gorgeous you want to suck it up through a straw. And it's a revelation to see how ruggedly handsome Thornton looks in shades of grey: There are shots in which it's hard not to think of '40s movie stars like Gary Cooper and Humphrey Bogart. But for all its fancy narrative footwork — and the plot does wriggle around sinuously, in ways knowingly reminiscent of classic noir pictures — the film is ultimately disappointing. It's clever, in a "dare you to name this hommage" kind of way, but it's fundamentally heartless and coldly hollow. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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