Rated R - Running Time: 1:56 - Released 11/2/01

It is no secret that Joel and Ethan Coen, the two brothers from Minneapolis, have become one of the most talked about writing/directing/producing teams of late, carving out a distinctive niche for themselves (and winning numerous awards) with quirky, inventive films full of memorable characters and visually powerful images, always built on their own highly distinctive style of screenwriting. Usually basing their scripts on great works of literature and often using the same actors, they tend to alternate between violent murder thrillers with a touch of humor (Fargo, Blood Simple) and dark comedies with a touch of violence (Raising Arizona, O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Their latest film, The Man Who Wasn't There, falls squarely into the former category. Shot in black and white, it is a quiet, contemplative noir thriller with a look and tone uncannily reminiscent of Hitchcock and a slow, brooding pace that at times undermines its effectiveness.

Revolving, as many Coen bros. films have, around an unintentional killing, The Man Who Wasn't There stars Billy Bob Thornton as a barber named Ed Crane, who works silently, with an ever-present cigarette, in a small, family-owned barber shop in rural California in the late 1940s. "I don't talk much," Thornton says in a gravelly voiceover while clipping away at some rich kid's hair. But Ed's silence is more than made up for by the overly talkative Frank (Michael Badalucco), the shop's owner, who regales his patrons with his knowledge of barberish subjects like fly-fishing. Frank is the brother to Ed's opportunistic wife Doris (Frances McDormand, a.k.a. Mrs. Joel Coen), who is working her way up the administrative ladder at Nirdlinger's department store, partially by having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini). I cannot go into specifics without revealing important surprise elements of the plot, but Doris's relationship with Dave results in several events that change Ed's life, including a murder, a suicide, a wrongly accused suspect, and the disappearance of a stranger with $10,000 of borrowed money. Effective in supporting roles are Jon Polito as a homosexual entrepreneur and con man, Tony Shalhoub as an arrogant and long-winded attorney, and 16-year-old Scarlett Johansson (The Horse Whisperer) as a young pianist whose music eases Ed's soul in his troubled times, but whose innocent beauty leads him into more trouble.

Although this film is deeply intriguing and fairly crammed with subtle references and mysterious symbolism relating to everything from the philosophy of Heisenberg to alien abduction, it moves at a glacial pace and sometimes suffers from an overindulgence in style. While the Coens are clearly head and shoulders above most filmmakers in their ability to tell a complex story with style and grace, this time the style comes close to overshadowing the substance, especially in the use (dare I say overuse?) of the black and white contrasts. Visual images and atmosphere (largely the work of the Coens' gifted cinematographer, Roger Deakins) are regularly put before the necessary furthering of the plot, so the viewer spends more time noticing the set dressing and camera angles than absorbing the story.

Stylistic obfuscations aside, The Man is certainly a thought-provoking piece showcasing more excellent work from Thornton, McDormand, Gandolfini, and Shalhoub, and another example of what cinema can be when produced by talented people. It's nice to know there are a few filmmakers out there who are interested in producing art rather than just soulless commerce. ****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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