Watching a period film by Ethan and Joel Coen always feels like a trip through movie history, and never more so than with The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Maybe it’s the silver-hued black-and-white images from the Coens’ favorite cinematographer, Roger Deakins, which re-create not just the way 1949 America looked but how it looked in the movies. Or the way the storyline mimics a hard-boiled crime novel from James M. Cain. Or how almost every detail references another movie, like the locale (Santa Rosa, Hitchcock’s quintessential American town in Shadow of a Doubt), and even the way the actors look (Billy Bob Thornton eerily resembling a gaunt Raymond Burr).
Unlike the Coens’ previous forays into the early 20th century (Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy and O Brother Where Art Thou?), this film seems to be stifled by the brothers adhering too closely to the genre they’ve meticulously re-created. The Coens do find a great deal of sly humor in the details of old-school film noir (particularly in Thornton’s pungent deadpan voiceover), but there’s nothing in The Man Who Wasn’t There that’s as deliciously nasty or startlingly original as the terrifying roadside burial in their debut film, Blood Simple (1984), one of the best examples of neo-noir. Yet Man is still very much the work of this distinctive team, who write, direct, produce and edit their movies (thereby maintaining precise control from inception to completion), and that’s seen in the meticulous craftsmanship of the filmmaking and in the characters, who aren’t merely eccentric but utterly immersed in the Coens’ oddball vision of reality.
Like one of Cain’s hapless antiheroes from Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice (who knowingly recall their sordid tales in the first person), Ed Crane (Thornton) tells the audience his story in candid narration, even though his predominant personality trait is silence. Ed’s silence is almost stifling, and he’s misinterpreted by his chatty companions as having nothing to say. It’s in this underestimation that lives are casually shattered when Ed decides to change his fortunes.
No one expects too much of Ed Crane, least of all his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), who married him to have a comfortable companion as opposed to any great love match. In their picture-perfect California bungalow, he casually shaves her legs while she bathes, a scene that epitomizes their relationship, but would never have appeared in a film of the time (when bodily functions of any kind were considered unseemly).
The Coens again toy with convention in Ed’s recitation of the standard haircuts for boys, a stark symbol of post-war conformity that’s played for laughs. Or is it? Ed knows where every hair should go just as he knows his place in the world — yet when the wildly flamboyant entrepreneur Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) walks into his shop, takes off his outlandish toupee and begins talking about a seemingly outrageous new invention — dry cleaning — Ed is transformed. To become Tolliver’s silent partner (a role he knows well), Ed writes a blackmail letter to Doris’ boss, department store tycoon Big Dave Nirdlinger (James Gandolfini), accusing him of having an extramarital affair.
More than other people, Ed seems to function on an unconscious level, and his instincts in this case are dead-on. But what he’s set into motion soon spins out of his control, and Doris is put on trial for murder.
The introduction of the grandstanding and vainglorious criminal defense attorney, Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), a strong believer in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, is one of the best parts of The Man Who Wasn’t There. But the Coens let this fascinating story thread unravel, and move Ed into a blinding infatuation with teenage pianist Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johansson). Despite Thornton’s superlative performance (he hasn’t sunk this deep into a character since Sling Blade), this is where the film derails and never quite gets back on track.
With every twist and turn in The Man Who Wasn’t There, the Coen brothers want to steer their audience down a sleek new road of California noir, but too often, it just seems like they’re spinning their wheels.
Showng exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Visit the official Man Who Wasn't There Web site at www.themanwhowasntthere.com.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.