Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Films of the Coen Brothers: The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)
Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton (Ed Crane), Frances McDormand (Doris Crane), Michael Badalucco (Frank), James Gandolfini (Big Dave Brewster), Katherine Borowitz (Ann Nirdlinger Brewster), Jon Polito (Creighton Tolliver), Scarlett Johansson (Birdy Abundas), Richard Jenkins (Walter Abundas), Tony Shalhoub (Freddy Riedenschneider).

The Man Who Wasn’t There make is clear the Coen brothers know their film noir. Filmed in glorious black and white, the film takes place in small California town in the late 1940s, and has a “regular Joe” at its center. Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a normal guy, and he narrates his story, as how he went from small town barber and got sucked into a world of adultery, blackmail and murder. That’s classic noir stuff – and the Coens hit all the right notes. Yet, the film is more than a mere genre exercise – more than simply a recreation of a genre the brothers obviously love. Some complained that the film was perhaps too long – at nearly two hours, it’s half an hour longer than standard noir B-pictures of the era were. But it’s that extra time that I think elevates the movie into more than what it appears to be. There is a moment, almost precisely 83 minutes into the film where the Coens could conceivably have ended their movie and had a perfect homage to noir. But they push on for another 35 minutes. And that makes all the difference in this film.

Ed works as a second chair barber for his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco). Frank talks non-stop when he cuts hair – and the rest of the day too for that matter. That suits Ed just fine, because the man barely says a word – he cuts the hair, and smokes. Ed is married to Doris (Frances McDormand), who perhaps picked Ed because of this quality of standing silently and smoking – and basically doing what he is told. Doris works doing the books for the town’s big department store. Her boss is Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini) – and it’s clear when Ed and Doris get together with Big Dave and his wife, Ann (Katherine Borowitz), the heiress of that department store, that Big Dave and Doris are having an affair. They laugh and talk to each other in a way that is too familiar. Ed deals with this the same way he deals with everything – by silently smoking.

Ed probably would have continued silently smoking until he died had he never met Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) – a man with a horrible toupee who comes into the shop one day just as they are closing. Frank heads out, but Ed stays behind the finish the stranger’s hair. Tolliver is in town because he was hoping to get an investor for his brilliant new idea – dry cleaning. He only $10,000 to start the first business, and is willing to split the profits 50/50 with his investor. Ed doesn’t have $10,000 – but Big Dave might. He sends a blackmail note to Big Dave demanding the money – and from there, things unsurprisingly go to shit. Plans never work in film noir like they are supposed to.

Thornton’s performance in the film is one of his best. We hear his voice almost constantly throughout the film, but it’s almost all in voiceover – when he’s with another person, they do almost all the talking. Thornton’s performance is the subtlest of his career – one of the subtlest I have ever seen actually – as he gets a remarkable amount of emotion across with very little facial movement. His Ed Crane is really a man who simply wants something “more” in his life – not necessarily more money, but more meaning. He goes after the dry cleaning because it would something that is his – and his alone. The subplot involving his growing obsession with the teenage daughter of an acquaintance, Birdy (Scarlett Johansson) is not sexual in anyway – at least from his end. He just thinks she plays the piano beautifully. Ed Crane is the sad, lonely, quiet man who fades into the background wherever he goes – no one notices him – not even his own wife (the look on McDormand’s face when it becomes clear to her that Thornton knows about her affair with Big Dave is one of quiet shock). Yet this guy that nobody notices is the driving force behind everything that happens in the movie. The seeds of his discontent are actually sewn earlier – before the start of the movie, and we see it in flashback, as a salesman comes calling about their pea stone driveway. This looks like a throwaway scene, but I don’t think it is.

The Coens surround Thornton with a lot of really good “talkers” – from McDormand as his domineering wife, to Polito as the gay entrepreneur, to Badalucco as his lovable, lunk headed brother-in-law, to Gandolfini, as sad and perhaps pathetic as Ed, but in a different way, and best of all Tony Shaloub, as the fast talking lawyer who first defends Doris, and finally defends Ed.  The technical specs of the movie are perfect – it looks like a film noir right out of the 1940s, with brilliant cinematography by Roger Deakins, to the sets that look like they could be out of a studio back lot, and the costumes that are perfect.

The Man Who Wasn’t There will always hold a special space in the Coens filmography for me. Their films are often about characters that cannot shut up – who are witty and funny throughout – or at the very least are noticeable. I love those characters. But poor, silent Ed Crane reminds me more of myself that I probably care to admit. I too fade into the background a little bit – I sit back and observe like Ed does as well. Now, I haven’t killed anyone, and likely never will – but the character, and Billy Bob Thornton’s performance, is something I relate to more than most movie characters. To some, The Man Who Wasn’t There was little more than another genre exercise for the Coens. For me, it’s far more personal.

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