The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) finds the Coen Brothers returning to their favorite genre, film noir. Where Blood Simple (1984) and Fargo (1996) offered up fairly simple pastiches of the genre, The Man Who Wasn't There zeroes in on the tone of world-weary tone of classic film noirs by keeping its focus almost entirely on Billy Bob Thornton's sad-sack protagonist. Thornton's mild-mannered, cuckolded barber is less a take-off on the typical noir antihero than he is the living embodiment of the desperate, frustrated feeling lurking around the edges of every film noir.
Thornton is married to Frances McDormand, an employee at Nerdlinger's department store. The barber suspects that his wife is sleeping with her boss, James Gandolfini, who is married to the Nerdlinger heiress. Thornton uses Gandolfini's precarious position to his advantage, sending an anonymous letter to the boss claiming that he will reveal the affair if he doesn't receive $10,000 – the same amount that the barber needs to serve as the silent partner in sleazy salesman Jon Polito's new dry cleaning business. Naturally, all sorts of complications arise from there, with numerous cases of mistaken identity leading to the arrest and/or deaths of all of the main characters, all of whom are guilty but none of whom are punished for the correct crime.
For once, the Coens' plot convolutions revolve less around the characters' stupidity than their tangled emotions. The Man Who Wasn't There boasts what is arguably the most complicated plot of any of their films to this point, with the possible exception of Miller's Crossing (1990), yet the events play out so methodically that they don't seem contrived (though it does take a certain amount of suspension of disbelief to believe that Thornton would fall into Polito's obvious scam so easily). Thornton's mesmerizing performance, which never fails to convey the subliminal emotions buried underneath his character's stone-faced exterior, keeps The Man Who Wasn't There grounded and makes it the saddest, most humane, and most elegant of the Coen Brothers' career up to this point.
Yet there are problems whenever the film strays too far from Thornton's character and the labyrinthine complications caused by his suppressed rage. Throughout The Man Who Wasn't There, the Coens balance Thornton's understated character against their more typically flamboyant caricatures, an effect that simultaneously makes the protagonist's disconnection palpable and offers the supporting players a chance to stand out with some funny moments in the middle of all of the sadness. Gandolfini's heavy-breathing motor-mouth, Polito's sweaty conman, and Tony Shalhoub's over-confident lawyer (basically a reprise of his routine from Barton Fink) each play off of Thornton's meek everyman nicely. But after Gandolfini, McDormand, and Polito are all dead, essentially wrapping up the plot, the film just keeps going and going, throwing in an extraneous UFO subplot and a quasi-affair between Thornton and young piano prodigy Scarlett Johansson. The Coens have never been great self-editors, which isn't necessarily a problem in madcap comedies like The Big Lebowski (1998) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), but if ever one of their films demanded an extremely tight focus, it's The Man Who Wasn't There.
The Man Who Wasn't There would almost certainly be better if it was closer to 90 minutes than two hours, but fortunately there is plenty to praise in the movie's better moments. By now it goes without saying that Roger Deakins is the Coens' ideal cinematographer, but his crisp black and white work here is on an even higher plane of achievement than anything we've seen from him in the past. The tense, deadly fight between Thornton and Gandolfini, complete with glass that slowly cracks and separates seconds after its hit, is as vivid a setpiece as the Coens have ever delivered. And it's impossible to overpraise Thornton's lyrical, career-best performance. When Thornton delivers his character's final death row narration, wondering whether he'll be able to reconnect with his wife and tell her "all the things we don't have words for in this world," he achieves something that seemed out of the Coens' grasp in their previous films – truthful, heartbreaking elegance.
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