Wednesday, November 6, 2013


(November 2001, U.S.)

When you seriously consider the long career of the Coen Brothers, there are some films that have achieved worldwide attention like RAISING ARIZONA (1987), FARGO (1996), THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998), NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007), their 2010 remake of TRUE GRIT and some that just sort of get lost in the big shuffle like MILLER'S CROSSING (1990), BARTON FINK (1991) and their 2004 remake of THE LADY KILLERS. When you also consider that much of their art and material follows a classic pattern of film noir, it's a small wonder that more of their films were not shot in black and white, as THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE is. It's one that, unfortunately, got lost in the big shuffle, but it's quite an extraordinary film.

In the neo-noir year of 1949, Ed Crane (played by Billy Bob Thorton) is a small town barber who simply does his job and doesn't talk much. He and his bookkeeper wife Doris (played by Frances McDormand), who's also a drinker, are about as happily married as...well, as MY parents were when I was growing up! Ed suspects that Doris is having an affair with her loud and boisterous department store-owner boss "Big Dave" Brewster (played by James Gandolfini). In an attempt to get revenge and to also give himself a financial boost in his life, Ed deceptively and creatively seeks to anonymously blackmail Brewster for $10,000 for which he will invest in what appears to be the next big thing known as dry cleaning. Like BLOOD SIMPLE and FARGO, what starts out as a simple scheme of blackmail and extortion inevitably turns to murder. In this case, we can perhaps call it involuntary manslaughter as Ed's fatal act against Brewster is justified in self-defense. No matter, though. Before we know it, it's Doris who's being charged with his murder and Ed in a rather surprising move, appears to be coming to her aid with support and the best legal defense that money can buy. But as many of the films of the Coen Brothers, things are not destined to end well. Just when we think Doris might actually get off for a murder her husband committed, she ends up committing suicide. Just when we think Ed may come out clean from all of this by not only getting away with murder, but with also being rid of his cheating wife, we witness the offer of a blowjob from an underage girl named Birdy (played by Scarlett Johansson) inevitably result in a horrible car crash which then results in the arrest of Ed for a completely different murder that we, as the viewer, know he did not commit. By the time we've seen it all come down on this unassuming barber who's spent his life invisible to the rest of the world, he's being put to death in the electric chair.

While Billy Bob Thorton may be best remembered for his role in SLING BLADE (a film I did not like, by the way), it's his role as Ed Crane is the one I'd prefer to let stand as the quintessential role of his career. His character's affectlessness is not a quality very much sought out or prized in film protagonists, but he manages to do it perfectly in his role as nothing more than an unimportant small-town barber in an era long gone. The cinematography is straightforward and traditional for black and white. Most of the shots are made with the camera at eye level, with normal lensing and a long depth of field. The lighting can be considered rather textbook, with quarter-light setups. When Ed Crane appears onscreen, he's almost always shown smoking an unfiltered cigarette, which may be considered another detail true to the era in which the film is set. It's wonderful homage to the art of black and white film noir, and it's all Coen Brothers!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Ed Crane (narrating): "It was only a couple weeks later she suggested getting married. I said, "Don't you want to get to know me more?" She said, "Why? Does it get better?"

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