Director Deep Dive: The Man Who Wasn’t There

Director Deep Dive is a chronological look into a director’s filmography to see how they and their works grow and change.

Out of the many genres that the Coen brothers have mixed into their films, noir has been the one they return to the most. It has been a persistent presence since their debut and inspired two separate tributes to authors whose work influenced the duo. The brothers also have a tendency to follow up an immense success with something completely out of left field. So, what did they make after their greatest commercial hit to date? A black-and-white homage to the film noir of the 40s and 50s that might be their most cynical work.

The Man Who Wasn’t There finds the brothers treading familiar ground with a new spin on it. Set in 1949, the movie follows Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a withdrawn barber who has become bored with his simple life. Crane takes action when a stranger (Jon Polito) arrives at the shop and offers him a partnership in the new business of dry cleaning. In order to secure the money for the investment, Crane blackmails his wife’s (Frances McDormand) boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini). From there, things go off the rails in typical Coens fashion. It’s Fargo meets Miller’s Crossing with a mean streak running through it.

Wasn’t There contains references to many noir films while still subverting expectations. For instance, there is no criminal underworld to speak of, something that is standard in the genre. The Coens specifically called out Shadow of a Doubt as the main film that inspired them during production, but you can also find influences from many stories of the time. The duo’s signature blending of different genre elements also creeps into the picture’s second half when 50s sci-fi elements appear.

Sometimes The Man Who Wasn’t There appears to be a bunch of the Coens previous movies rearranged and smashed together. This is less of a criticism and more an observation of some recurring tropes that have developed in their work. Ed Crane is another one of the duo’s characters boxed in by his average life. His fall into crime and the disastrous results call back to Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo. There is even a bit of Barton Fink in how the film itself seems to revile its protagonist. We also return to a popular thematic symbol for the brothers: a circular object that reappears throughout the film to reflect the lead’s own turmoil, appearing here as a UFO.

Roger Deakins returns for his sixth consecutive collaboration with the Coens and the results are typically stunning. He takes modern filming methods and uses them to create a picture that feels contemporary even as it calls back to the past. Shot in color and digitally corrected to black and white, Deakins opens up the film to a wider array of grays, allowing the picture to have a greater use of light and shadow than the noirs it pays homage to.

As Ed Crane, Billy Bob Thornton gives one of the best performances of his career. Crane is the titular man, always present but never really there. Most of Thornton’s dialogue comes to us via voiceover narration because Ed rarely speaks to those around him. A man entirely defined by his emptiness. It is a testament to Thornton’s acting ability that what happens to Crane keeps our interest despite his lack of emotion. With each twist, the film builds to a moment where you expect the mask to slip and for Ed to spill all his feelings out for the audience to see. That time never comes. Even in the most climatic moments, Thornton remains passive through it all.

The usual combo of returning Coen’s favorites and notable character actors fills the rest of the cast out. Frances McDormand immediately shatters any expectations of a second coming of Marge Gunderson with Doris. Like Ed, Doris finds her life lacking and copes by having an affair. James Gandolfini portrays Doris’ boss and lover, Big Dave, adding some nuance to a typical “tough guy” role. Tony Shalhoub nearly steals the show as Freddy Riedenschneider, a play on the fast-talking lawyer who always wins his case. Not quite a scam artist, but certain to charge you for every available hour. The rest of the cast includes Michael Badalucco, Richard Jenkins, a young Scarlett Johansson and Jon Polito in his final Coens film. All showing a zeal for life that makes Ed’s passivity even more noticeable.

The Man Who Wasn’t There released in November 2001 and bombed at the box office despite being well-received by critics, another trope from the duo’s early years reappearing. The “official” reason for the film’s poor earnings was that audiences simply weren’t interested in a black and white film. While that certainly played a part, the movie feels like another in a line of Coens productions that are too idiosyncratic to market to the masses.

The Coens frequently experiment with thematic meaning in their films and this is no exception. Not since Barton Fink have they made a movie this opaque. Full of symbolism, it begs you to seek answers while providing none. It’s easy to see the UFO and believe it reflects Ed’s own alien nature, but we can also view it as a commentary on his alienation from others. One of many elements that the movie asks you to find your own meaning in.

Perhaps their darkest and most cynical picture yet, The Man Who Wasn’t There is far from the easiest watch in the Coens filmography. If you can stomach a host of purposely unlikable characters and a bleak take on post-war America, you might just find something meaningful. The movie feels like a sign of things to come, a prophet of sorts for a new direction. It took a few years, but the Coens would dabble in this more cynical mode and produce some of their best work from it.

Next Time: The Coens head into unfamiliar territory with Intolerable Cruelty, a romantic comedy that aims for the mainstream.

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