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USA 2001
Directed by
Joel Coen
117 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Man Who Wasn't There

Although too relentlessly and dourly downbeat to win popular success. and even to please fans of the Coen’s zippier films, The Man Who Wasn't There amply demonstrates the brother's superior skills in retro film-making.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, a Mr Cellophane who works in a barber shop in Northern California in the late 1940s. He’s married to Doris (Frances McDormand) a booze artist who’s having an affair with her boss, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini). One day a customer (Jon Polito) offers Ed the opportunity to be a partner in a dry cleaning business and Ed figures that he can raise the required stake of $10,000 by blackmailing Big Dave over his infidelity.  But for Ed, being the loser he is, everything goes wrong.

Looking back thematically to Fargo the Coens rework the idea of a little guy trying to break out of the rut and being defeated. If you have a mordant sense of humour you could call this notion comedic and the Coen certainly do nothing to dissuade this interpretation in what is however also an inexorable  progression to the gallows (actually, an electric chair).

In the lead, Billy Bob Thornton is excellent as the impassive, affectless barber who observes life's inexorable crumbling, his own included, with resigned indifference. But as always with Coen brothers the casting is impeccable. From the director’s wife Frances McDormand to Jon Politio as a “pansy” salesman the cast are top notch. Equally, the script Is of their usual high calibre, perhaps forcing a few quirky elements  such as a flying saucer obsession and a precocious schoolgirl (a young Scarlett Johanssen) into what is a superb exercise in style. Here Roger Deakins’ camerawork and a first class production team are pivotal in recreating the look of 1940s black and white crime films like Double Indemnity

The Man Who Wasn't There is an unusually cerebral film (with excellent use being made of Thornton's narration) but for those so inclined, one that is perversely engaging.




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