The Man Who Wasn’t There

“A striking film noir set in the 1940’s, TMWWT is worth seeing for its incredibly lush black-and-white cinematography alone.”


Oh, the ironic curse of the Coen Brothers. Arguably among today’s best filmmakers, brothers Joel and Ethan Coen have together created some truly great films in the past two decades, including Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou.  Even their lesser works, like The Big Lebowski, outclass most of the dreck Hollywood turns out nowadays.  Because of this, every new Coen Brothers film released faces inevitable comparisons with their entire canon, instead of being judged on its own merit.  It must be very frustrating.

Luckily for them, they’re a talented duo, more likely to deliver a hit than to flounder. After a successful foray into musical comedy, their latest, The Man Who Wasn’t There, finds them once again exploring familiar themes of betrayal, blackmail and murder.  A striking film noir set in the 1940’s, TMWWT is worth seeing for its incredibly lush black-and-white cinematography alone. Add to that a roster of outstanding performances and you have another title to add to the Coen’s catalog of great films…almost.  Despite its attributes, TMWWT feels slightly off-kilter – slightly too bizarre, a tad too boring.  Still, the film does so many things so flawlessly it seems downright petty to complain about any minor imperfections.

Billy Bob Thornton plays unassuming everyman Ed, who cuts hair in his brother-in-law’s barbershop.  Vaguely dissatisfied with his life, Ed jumps at an opportunity to invest in an entrepreneurial venture when offered by a fast-talking customer (in what is surely the most laughable gay romantic pass ever committed to celluloid).    Upon discovering his wife (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss (James Gandolfini), Ed sets in motion a scheme that is his ultimate undoing.

Thornton, channeling Humphrey Bogart, delivers a hypnotic performance as a hapless man – in over his head – who finds himself in the awkward position of having to pay to investigate a crime he committed himself.  McDormand is brilliant as a social-climbing housefrau (and would-be femme fatale), and Gandolfini impresses as a two-timing lug of a businessman, although the specter of Tony Soprano looms large.

Like most Coen Brothers protagonists, Ed finds himself entangled in a complicated and dangerous trap of his own unwitting design.  But though this crime story starts off strongly enough, the Coens lose their focus along the way, delivering a strange and confusing resolution that weakens the film’s impact.  In other words, The Man Who Wasn’t There eventually reveals itself to be The Hudsucker Proxy in Fargo’s clothing.

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