More Neo-Noir from the Brothers Coen
The Man who Wasn’t There is as cool a piece of virtuoso moviemaking as you are likely to find this year.
Which shouldn't be surprising -- it is after all the latest product from the prolific Joel and Ethan Coen, director and producer respectively of such post-satirical classics as Raising Arizona, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Barton Fink.
Their latest is another exercise in the neo-noir vein the Coens mined so successfully for 1990's Miller's Crossing, which was based on several novels by hardboiled stylist Dashiell Hammett.
The Man Who Wasn't There is based on a novel by James Cain, the author of The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, both made into movies in the 1940s and remade in the 1980s.
Also set in the 1940s, with beautiful black and white cinematography by Roger Deakins, The Man Who Wasn’t There tells the story of a loveless couple and the web of deceit, amorality and violence that draws tight around them. Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a small town barber married to Doris (Francis McDormand, Joel Coen’s wife) who cooks the books in a store run by Big Dave (James Gandolfini).
Big Dave and Doris are having an affair. Ed knows about it and uses the knowledge to gouge $10,000 out of Dave. The money is for a hare-brained scheme to open a dry cleaning business operated by a conman whose hair Ed has cut. Needless to say, none of Cain’s crooked protagonists ever get rich on their desperate schemes. Most often they end up dead.
But before Ed Crane takes his long walk to the electric chair, there are some truly faultless set pieces. The film establishes Billy Bob Thornton as a movie star. He plays an inscrutable and ambivalent anti-hero as unlikeable as James Cagney and as nicotine-dependent as Humphrey Bogart.
Thornton steals the film on the strength of his deadpan facial muscles alone. He never smiles or lets his eyes light up. The very few times he seems to come to life are, paradoxically, at the very times when he seems most doomed. When Crane first glimpses the electric chair in a stylised white room, with a line of strangers watching him, for the briefest moment, he seems almost human. Otherwise, he seems beset by a preternatual calm that never cracks. It is a star-making performance that should put him in line for an Oscar.
For fans of The Sopranos, Gandolfini as Big Dave reprises his role as Tony Soprano. Gandolfini plays Dave as a war hero with a gangster's heart. McDormand as Doris also has a note-perfect role.
The film begins with a loving director's shot of McDormand putting on stockings, a garter belt, high heels, skirt, the whole enchilada, as Thornton's voiceover, almost as an afterthought, introduces Doris the faithless wife.
The film has some deft comic touches, particularly those set in the barber shop with its endless array of boys reading comic books while they get a haircut.
Whereas most barbers talk too much, Ed Crane says not a word. Even his narration is spare, and however much he talks he remains essentially unknowable.
The barber’s existentialist dilemma – Does he in fact exist? And if so where? – is the engine that drives the film. Thanks to Thornton, the engine is a Rolls Royce.