Man Who Wasn’t There, The (2001): Joel and Ethan Coen Film Noir, Starring Billy Bob Thornton

With their latest foray into film noir, Joel and Ethan Coen continue to explore a recurrent motif of their work: The destructive force of unbridled individualism, or more specifically, greed as the dark side of the American Dream.

Arguably their most ambitious film since Barton Fink, which exactly 10 years ago won the Cannes’ Palme d’Or, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a sumptuously mounted, visually striking, black-and-white period piece, featuring a brilliant performance by Billy Bob Thornton as a small-town barber stuck with a banal existence and an unfaithful wife, played by Frances McDormand.

Representing a thematic and stylistic departure from the Coens’ last several pictures, all of which were box office successes(particularly O Brother Where Art Thou) their latest Cannes competition entry will need strong critical muscle to overcome serious commercial problems posed by a narrative set in the late 1940s, excessive voice-over, deliberate pacing, a tone that progressively gets darker and a downbeat closure.

It’s easier to appreciate and admire the achievements of The Man than to really like or get involved emotionally in the story. Indeed, as scripted and directed, the film benefits from bravura filmmaking and sensational control over every aspect of the production, but it suffers from a detached, rather cerebral approach that deconstructs film noir’s literary sources, pulp novels by James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, from a coldly calculated contemporary perspective.

In narrative and characterization, The Man is very much a reworking of Cain’s hard-boiled crime yarns in such films as Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity and Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. In setting, the picture situates itself in the small-town America of Santa Rosa, California, the locale of Hitchcock’s brilliant noir Shadow Of A Doubt, with which it shares some thematic resemblance. Like Hitchcock’s 1943 film, which was based on a screenplay by Thornton Wilder, The Man offers a critical look at such sacred institutions as the nuclear family and bourgeois marriages. In visual style, the Coens draw on several Alan Ladd crime-detective noirs of the 1940s, including This Gun For Hire and The Blue Dahlia.

The title character is Ed Crane (Thornton), a small-town barber, working in a shop owned by his wife’s brother (Michael Badalucco), and utterly dissatisfied with his mundane life and sexually barren marriage. The first reel is splendid in capturing the boredom in the routine existence of a man who obviously aspires higher than just cutting hair. Very much like the blocked writer (played by John Turturro) in Barton Fink, Ed is emotionally numb, staring for hours at his customers’ hair — and the walls of a shop that feels like a cage, or prison.

Opportunity knocks when Ed realizes that his pretentious, upwardly mobile wife, Doris (McDormand), is having an affair with her married employer, Big Dave (James Gandolfini), the well-to-do owner of a department store. When Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), a stranger who appears who out of the blue, offers an intriguing proposition, going into the rapidly growing dry cleaning business as equal partners, Ed sees it as a salvation from his dreary life. Since all that’s needed is $10,000, he decides to blackmail Dave.

The blackmail sets in motion an unexpected chain of events that has tragic consequences for everyone involved. In a brilliantly staged and lensed nocturnal encounter, Ed kills Dave. From that point on, the narrative chronicles a crime that goes uproariously — but not hilariously — awry, which distinguishes the movie from Fargo.

Twists and turns mark a complicated and complex plot, including the arrest of Doris, who’s accused of killing Dave and later confesses to an embezzlement. The drama further escalates, when Doris commits suicide in prison, and a very depressed Ed tries to redeem himself and begin a new chapter by encouraging the music talents of a young woman (Scarlett Johansson).

The novelty of the Coens’ approach is that their protagonist isn’t a handsome insurance agent (a la Fred McMurray in Double Indemnity) or a charismatic, sexually potent drifter (John Garfield was in The Postman), but rather an average married man, who feels cheated by the American Dream and the new prosperity that began right after WWII. Furthermore, unlike most crime yarns, which take place in a seedy underworld setting (a noir favourite locale), The Man benefits from its plain and ordinary context.

Early on, there are sharply observed scenes of family dinners, Bingo playing, club dancing, and a marvellous wedding scene of Doris’s cousin that illustrates Doris’s aspirations, her wish to disassociate herself from her working-class Italian descent. Blessedly, the narrative always makes sure to return to its primary setting, the barbershop, and to its anti-hero, who provides a consistent point of view of events that increasingly spin out of control, getting darker and darker until the yarn reaches its bitter and downbeat ending.

As tightly controlled and impressively mounted The Man is by cinematographer Roger Deakins and production designer Dennis Gassner it can’t overcome entirely its narrative and structural weakness. It’s always a challenge for filmmakers to depict alienation, despondency, and moral breakdown in a visually exciting and emotionally accessible manner. Indeed, The Man suffers from prolonged voice-overs and the passivity inherent in Ed’s profession — and personality, which, of course, is the point of the story. Even so, too many of dramatic events are verbally narrated rather than visually depicted.

Then there’s the issue of a tale organized in terms of big set-pieces (a recurrent problem in the Coens’ oeuvre), without much dramatic momentum. That the story unfolds in a slow and measured tempo make the tragedy less involving and touching than it should have been. In their laudable effort to avoid any sentimentality, the Coens have made a dry, almost juiceless yarn, failing to realize that what made classic noir enjoyable was not only its pulpish material but also pulpish melodrama and emotions.

Chameleon actor Thornton acquits himself marvellously in a demanding role that mostly calls for reaction rather than action. Sporting black hair and a slender figure, he looks like a tormented and soulful Montgomery Clift, who became popular in the late 1940s, when the story is set. He’s greatly assisted by a superb cast of character actors and Coens regulars, including McDormand (in a disappointingly small role), Jon Polito, Tony Shalhoub, Michael Badalucco, and others.