By William Wolf

THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE  Send This Review to a Friend

The Coen brothers have pulled off a major creative coup by fashioning a fresh film noir of the kind that graced the 1940s and early 1950s and enhancing it with twists and turns that reflect their own special sense of humor and perspective. Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the screenplay, with Joel directing. Although they shot the film in color, they printed it in glorious black and white and it looks so terrific that the visuals go far toward putting us in the right frame of mind to appreciate this delightfully entertaining, quirky and suspenseful tale. Like a good film noir should, this one involves deception, passion, murder, retribution and a hefty sense of irony, of which the Coen brothers have a generous supply.

What's more, there is a whale of a performance by Billy Bob Thornton, who has little to say on screen but keeps us filled in with a dry, matter-of-fact running narration. Thornton plays Ed, a barber, who is certainly the man of the title. He plods along largely unnoticed, cutting hair in his brother-in-law's shop, listening to barber shop chatter and daydreaming about other options. The time is 1949, the setting a small California town. Ed is married to Doris, with Frances McDormand in another of her super performances. It is one boring marriage, which occurred shortly after they had met. When Ed asked whether she thought they should wait a while, he recalls that she said, "Why, does it get any better?" Doris is a bookkeeper for Big Dave (James Gandolfini), who operates a department store that belongs to his wife and her family. Score one more acting triumph for Gandolfini.

One day Ed cuts the hair of a man looking for investments for what he says is a sure-fire new idea--dry cleaning. Ed sees a big chance. The move triggers a series of events that spell nothing but trouble. Big trouble. It would spoil matters to reprise the plot. But this being film noir, the permutations for disaster are infinite. The fun is in following the course of Ed and the other characters with all the frills that the Coens provide along the way. These are very difficult to capture descriptively, but rest assured that the filmmakers have surprises in store.

"The Man Who Wasn't There" copped a tie for best director at the Cannes Film Festival, and deservedly, for one scene after another is a standout because of humor, an odd situation, a burst of violence, the acting or just the sheer beauty of the cinematography by Roger Deakins. The costumes are right on target for the period, from Doris's girdle to men's hats, and so is the music.

The casting is also on target, with Michael Badalucco, Katherine Borowitz, Jon Polito, Tony Shalhoub and Scarlett Johansson among them. Shalhoub's depiction of a fast-talking, hot shot lawyer is a gem. If you are a film buff, it is worth seeing "The Man Who Wasn't There" twice, once to get carried away and the second time to concentrate on the nuances of technique displayed in reaching back to pay homage to a genre.

The film isn't entirely hard-boiled. There is also a quiet poignancy at work. One can feel sorry for Ed as a character who might have climbed out of his rut if life had worked out differently. But then we wouldn't have had the true film noir experience. A USA Films release.


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