REVIEW: Nowhere Men; Coens Elegantly Craft "Man Who Wasn't There"
by Patrick Z. McGavin
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Patrick Z. McGavin reviewed the Coen's "The Man Who Wasn't There" during Cannes 2001. The film will open Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles].
Tonally sophisticated, formally deft, the elegantly vicious poetic crime movie by Joel and Ethan Coen, "The Man Who Wasn't There" inhabits a vivid, peculiar place of loss and corruption. Neither pastiche nor parody, the movie suffers from an academic veneer, though it removes the deconstruction of genre and the assorted subdivisions of "post-noir" and "neo-noir" that continuously threaten to render the form irrelevant.
Above all, it is sharp, gorgeous moviemaking; the luminous, beautifully textured black and white cinematography of Roger Deakins and the evocative production design of Dennis Gassner, carry dense and allusive references to movies (a haunting reminder of the car submerged in the lake from Charles Laughton's "Night of the Hunter"), 1940s "detective" stories, and the furious, bleakly stylized first-person novels of Jim Thompson ("The Nowhere Man," "A Killer Inside Me"). The Coen Brothers' first feature, "Blood Simple" was steeped in James Cain's "Double Indemnity"; their third movie "Miller's Crossing" was a variation of Dashiel Hammett's "Red Harvest." "Man Who Wasn't There," however, does not replicate the nasty, visceral edge of Thompson's work, though the dovetailing themes of escape and entrapment, deception and negation, bleed through every frame.
Known in production as "The Barber Project," this new Cannes competition work has a sharper focus and greater concentration than their 2000 Depression-era musical, "O Brother, Where Art Thou." It is graced by the same free form, open ended narrative, the discursive, off-center rhythms, though here the work is anchored by a melancholy, subdued and quietly sad lead performance from Billy Bob Thornton. His first-person narration establishes the movie's wounded, ephemeral voice, tracing the outlines of his character, the resigned, defeated "barber," denied the inherent material comfort and social mobility of immediate post-war American culture. Set in the late 1940s, in the crippling, anonymous small town life of a Sacramento suburb, the movie sketches the surreal consequences and devastating repercussions of his failed extortion plot.
Curious about the dreamy tactics of a confidence man (Jon Polito), the barber, Ed Crane, orchestrates a blackmail plot against his wife Doris (Frances McDormand) and her lover, Big Dave (James Gandolfini), a local department store magnate. The plan inevitably disintegrates, leaving Big Dave dead and Doris charged with his murder. Deeply conflicted, Crane enlists the support of a charismatic attorney, Freddy Riedenschneider (a superb Tony Shalhoub), to defend his wife of the charges. In a parallel, increasingly fascinating story, the laconic, emotionally restrained Crane is mesmerized by the lovely, authentic innocence of a promising young pianist, Birdy (an equally impressive Scarlett Johansson), the daughter of the town lawyer. Though the essentially cold, analytical sensibility of the Coen Brothers remains their most problematic feature, the emotional complications of the relationship is movingly expressed, with a jolting denouement.
The movie lacks the speed and intensity of the traditional crime thriller, offering instead a plaintive and trenchant exploration of salvation and grace. Despite the sophisticated visual patterns, the gradations of light and shadow, ambiguity and disruption, "The Man Who Wasn't There" is most impressive for its innovative, novelistic flair -- encompassing a range of perceptions and observations about American life and attitudes. Unlike "O Brother," this movie feels entirely thought through; it has a greater shape and expressive range, and the barely concealed contempt and superiority the filmmakers frequently express has been muted, though not completely suppressed. The consistently entertaining characterizations, from the miner players to Thornton -- not normally a strength for the Coens -- deepen the emotional register, creating a work with a finer, more attuned feeling of human experience.
"The Man Who Wasn't There" is hardly perfect; McDormand's character feels underdeveloped. Some of their recurring visual "stunts," in particular the use of circulate objects and shapes, appears somewhat worn out. But there is finally a greater sense of freedom and possibility. The work is meticulous, but there is not the feeling of coercion and persuasion that inflects their other movies, but a freshness and new way of seeing the world -- a fantastic, invigorating trip if ever one existed.