THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE directed and written by Joel and Ethan Coen, produced by Ethan Coen, with Billy Bob Thornton, Frances MacDormand, James Gandolfini and Tony Shalhoub. 115 minutes. A Working Title production, Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (November 2). For venues and times, see First-Run Movie Times. Rating: NNNN
The entire emotional arc of The Man Who Wasn't There appears in the resigned lines in Billy Bob Thornton's face.
As Ed Crane, small-town barber ("second chair"), Thornton creates a character so removed from his own emotional life that it might all be happening to someone else. His idea of revenge is to blackmail the man he suspects of having an affair with his wife.
As good as Thornton's performance is -- as a character incapable of dealing with the slow-burning ache at his core -- The Man Who would be a tough watch if not for the liveliness of the other players. This thing boasts Frances MacDormand as Doris Crane, James Gandolfini, all false joviality, as "Big Dave" Brewster, the sort of man who actually refers to himself as "Big Dave," and Tony Shalhoub as Freddy Riedenschneider, a fast-talking lawyer who decides that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle is the perfect defence against a murder charge. ("Sure, it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy's onto something.")
Set in the late 40s and swathed in Roger Deakins's luxurious black-and-white cinematography, The Man Who Wasn't There is the third Coen brothers pastiche of hard-boiled fiction writers. Miller's Crossing was Dashiell Hammett (mostly The Glass Key), The Big Lebowski was stoned Raymond Chandler, and The Man Who Wasn't There, with its small-town adultery, confidence scams and tone of heartless commerce, is James M. Cain. (The department store here is called Nerdlinger's, the name of baddie Barbara Stanwyck's character in Double Indemnity -- the novel, not the movie).
At Cannes this year, Joel Coen picked up his second Palme for direction -- sharing it with David Lynch -- for this film, even though its corkscrew plotting and fondness for period slang marks it as more Ethan than Joel (see Ethan's story collection, The Gates Of Eden).
It is as exquisitely directed as anything in theatres this year, but it's odd to see it share an award with Mulholland Drive. If Lynch's films are all subterranean id, wild at heart in the best sense, the Coens make superego films, all icy control and compulsively attentive to detail.
So far, one of the year's 10 best.