The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)


(director/writer: Joel Coen; screenwriter: Ethan Coen; cinematographer: Roger Deakins; editors: Tricia Cooke/Roderick Jaynes; music: Carter Burwell; cast: Billy Bob Thornton (Ed Crane), Frances McDormand (Doris Crane), Michael Badalucco (Frank), James Gandolfini (Big Dave), Scarlett Johansson (Birdy Abundas), Jon Polito (Creighton Tolliver), Richard Jenkins (Walter Abundas), Katherine Borowitz (Ann Nirdlinger), Tony Shalhoub (Freddy Riedenschneider), Adam Alexi-Malle (Carcanogues); Runtime: 116; USA Films; 2001)
“Each performance is intelligently measured.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This splendidly conceived grim black-and-white film noir that is mindful of a 1940s film, and is also a black comedy that is a character study of a passive person living in the postwar period. The film is set in 1949, in Santa Rosa, California, and tells the woeful tale of an ordinary man, a laconic, chain-smoking barber in the second chair of his chatty brother-in-law Frank’s (Badalucco) barber shop, Ed Crane (Thornton). He one day gets ambition and his placid but sad life comes falling down as a result– taking all those around him along with his descent. He becomes the right man convicted of the wrong crime, a familiar film noir theme.

Dissatisfied with his routine and not happy with his suburban life and sensing that his wife Doris (McDormand-wife of the director) is having an affair with her boss Big Dave (Gandolfini), whom she works for as a bookkeeper in Nirdlingers’ department store, he listens carefully when a seedy traveling salesman, wearing a toupee, Creighton Tolliver (Polito), comes in for a hair-cut and tells about needing $10,000 from a silent partner to start a dry-cleaning business–which will be the vogue of the future. Creighton will supply the expertise, Ed the cash. The depressive Ed falls hook, line, and sinker for this venture capital scam, and is determined to get the money.

In order to get the money Ed sends an anonymous blackmail letter to Big Dave, and the plan starts to materialize when Big Dave realizes he can’t let his wife Ann (Borowitz) know about this affair with Doris since it’s her father’s money that makes him the boss. After receiving the payoff in a secret location and sealing the deal with Creighton, he receives a call from Big Dave to meet him in the closed department store late at night. Having just returned from a family wedding where Doris got so drunk she’s now passed out on the couch, Ed takes her store keys and meets Big Dave in his office. Big Dave tells him he suspected the pansy Creighton of blackmailing him because he saw him before about that shady deal when he unsuccessfully asked for $10,000. Big Dave figured he saw him with Doris in the hotel he was staying at, and therefore came up with the blackmail scheme to get the dough. When he went to see Creighton, he beat it out of him where he got the money. Big Dave then proceeds to knock Ed around the office, but to defend himself Ed picks up Big Dave’s cigar trimmer knife and stabs him to death. It culminates in Doris being charged with the murder to coverup her embezzling, as the police find evidence that she cooked the books and therefore has a motive for the murder.

Frank mortgages his barber shop to the bank in order for Ed to get the best possible lawyer for Doris, a loudmouth smoothie from Sacramento (Shalhoub). He defends her by using the Heisenberg “Uncertainty Principle,” as he seeks to prove that everything is not what it seems to be. Ed fills in the details of what is racing through his mind via a continuous voiceover, as he is surrounded by loud talking males who seem to think they know everything. His only pleasure is listening to a high school girl, Birdy (Johansson), play Beethoven on the piano. She’s the daughter of a drunken widower trust lawyer (Jenkins), who is the only other male in the film as inarticulate, grief-stricken and lost in the world as Ed. Classical piano music is Ed’s only escape from the mundane world. But even this innocent pleasure will be challenged by the Coen brothers, as they put their scalpel to 1940s Americana and the underlying darkness in its consumerism mentality and phony sexual mores.

This elegant and intelligent film noir, covers a host of wide-ranging issues as Ed scrambles to make sense of the trap he is caught in. There are cold war issues to deal with as well as questions about flying saucers, and the modern trend of pulp magazines for legitimate reading material, bungalow houses as middle-class homes, and girdles for women’s ware. It is all wonderfully acted out by the emotionless Thornton as the unimportant invisible man and his wonderful supporting cast. Each performance is intelligently measured, and along with the magnificently rich photography from the Coen brother’s regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins, this film shines as one of the year’s best.


REVIEWED ON 11/29/2001 GRADE: A –