Montreal Film Journal


Ah, the Coen brothers. You really can't pin those lads down. Then again, you couldn't mistake one of their films for anyone else's. Their big thing seems to be to take an established genre, like gangster films or Capra feel-good comedies, reproduce it down to the smallest details, then start wedging in a bunch of more or less subtle odd touches. Someone taking just too long to die. Golden age wrestling. A Cyclops. Killer thieves watching the Tonight Show. The Dude, abiding. Henceforth, what looked like an utterly classic, by-the-numbers genre piece ends up being an offbeat, hard to define movie not quite like anything you've seen before. Take "Fargo", their best film in my opinion. There's this man, who has his own wife kidnapped to score a ransom from her wealthy father. Yawn, right? Yet watch as the Coen bring in the most unlikely of cops, an amusingly down-to-earth pregnant woman. Sometimes, though, the Coen's work can be obnoxious, like in last year's misguided "O Brother Where Art Thou?", their dull one-joke redneck comedy (wonderful soundtrack, though).

And then there's films like "Raising Arizona" or this one which, while they don't work perfectly, have well enough great things about them to be memorable. "The Man Who Wasn't There" is the Coen's take on the film noir. Shot in glorious black-and-white, set in northern California in the late 1940s, with all the nice big American cars, the old fashioned hairstyles ("the executive contour"), everyone's smoking drenching every shot with moody smoke. And at the centre of it all, another iconic Coen character in Ed Crane, played with evocative reserve by Billy Bob Thornton.

Crane works the second chair at his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco)'s barber shop. Crane is a man of few words. "I don't talk much. I just cut the hair." And so he does, keeping to himself, the eternal cigarette dangling between his lips. He's the kind of man you don't notice, a man without stories. But he does have a pretty wife in Doris (Frances McDormand), who works as an accountant in a department store downtown, he's got a nice bungalow, an electric ice machine, garbage disposal... He's got it made.

Yeah. But Ed's not content with his station in life. He's fed up with being "the barber". Second chair barber at that. So when he hears about this new thing which is supposed to become a cash cow, something called dry-cleaning, he's intrigued. And tempted. It sounds crazy ("cleaning, without water!"), but what if this is his big opportunity? All he needs is ten grands to launch himself. He doesn't have the capital, but he soon figures out a blackmailing scheme directed at his wife's boss (James Gandolfini), with whom she's two-timing him. A simple plan. Unfortunately, simple plans have a tendency to get complicated, especially if you're an everyman character in a film noir pastiche who's stepping out of line for the first time. I won't get into the specifics, but the Coen bros are far from being done with their barber.

The film is almost melodramatic in its unflinching succession of cruelly ironic twists. It walks a very fine line between tragedy and ridicule, and it's hard to tell which the filmmakers would rather lean towards. To me, this is the main reason why I found "The Man Who Wasn't There" good, but not great. It had the potential to be emotionally wrenching and thematically haunting, but just too often Joel and Ethan Coen can't help but get silly and take potshots at the genre. Those are actually pretty funny, like when Ed's potential dry cleaning partner (Jon Polio) makes a pass at him ("That was way out of line!"), or when Big Dave's wife (Katherine Borowitz) rambles on about UFOs, but it takes you out of the story. The Coen say their movie is about "existential dread", but you get the feeling it's also a joke to them. Of course, I can't pretend to know what their intents truly are, but this is the impression I got, that they cared less about involving us with the characters' ordeal than about being clever.

Still, if only on an aesthetic level, "The Man Who Wasn't There" is one of the most beautifully crafted movies they've made. I couldn't get enough of Roger Deakins' b&w cinematography, of the almost expressionistic use of light and shadow, the Carter Burwell score playing around Beethoven sonatas. And then there's the Coen's wonderfully rich and colorful dialogue dispensed by Billy Bob Thornton (mostly in deadpan voice-over) and by the all-around great supporting cast. James Gandolfini has strong presence without relying on his Tony Soprano mannerisms, Frances McDormand is interestingly colder and sultrier than usual, Tony Shalhoub steals many scenes as a smarmy, full of b.s. lawyer. There's also a few very nice, ambiguous scenes between Thornton and Scarlett Johansson, who plays a pretty young girl whom Crane likes to watch play the piano. So, even though I wish the Coen had invested themselves in their story more seriously, they more than make up for it with style and atmosphere.