The Man Who Wasn't There is the Coen brothers' latest off-kilter take on the bad-things-happen-to-dumb-people world of film noir. You might say it's in black and white, but look closer: The picture is largely gray, like the morality of its story. This is the Coens' grimmest film. Unlike their other work, the irony isn't darkly funny, it's bitter. Miller's Crossing, their 1990 mob movie, is the easiest comparison.
Billy Bob Thornton plays a man who is sort of there. With a face so stony it looks engraved (if not embalmed), Thornton's Ed Crane is as somber and placid as William H. Macy was frantic and jittery in the Coen's inimitable 1996 Oscar winner, Fargo. In measured tones, he narrates his own story, and like many noir dupes, his fate might as well be written in police chalk.
The Coens paid cheery disrespect to the novels of Raymond Chandler in The Big Lebowski, and their first film, Blood Simple, filtered crime writers like James M. Cain (The Postman Always Rings Twice) through the gaudy eyes of low-budget horror filmmakers. Having tweaked noir, the Coens now play the genre slavishly straight. And its rules are clear: Well-laid plots go bad and everyone loses.
Ed's wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), is cheating on him with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini, a.k.a. Tony Soprano). In an uncharacteristic bit of ambition, Ed breaks them up with a blackmail scheme, but soon two people die, the case ends up in court, and finally, worse. Ed hires The Best Lawyer in California (Tony Shalhoub), who tells him, “I'm an attorney. You're a barber. You don't know anything.”
What's unique about all of this is Ed: He remains a cipher. Thornton is emotionless throughout, giving us so inconspicuous a leading man that he's as tangible as the constant smoke circling his head. You might say he lives a life of quiet desperation if you knew what was going on in his head. Ed is epitomized by his job, his life defined by default: He works the second chair in his brother-in-law's barber shop in sleepy Santa Rosa, Calif. (which is, incidentally, the setting for Alfred Hitchock's 1943 noir, Shadow of a Doubt).
It's 1949 and he's dazed by routine. His blackmail plot is a little act of subversion, but as bad as the plan goes, its effects are paradoxical. The deeper in trouble Ed gets, the more his face glows (if incrementally) and the more alive he seems. It's the Coens' sardonic touch: By ruining his life, Ed finds the only excitement he's known. As his fate grows clear, the film itself brightens. I'm reminded of old photographs, their subjects overexposed and silvery, with white halos around their bodies.
But Roger Deakins' beautiful cinematography is almost too accomplished and self-conscious for its own good, which isn't to say Man Who Wasn't There needed to crummy itself up. It's just that Man, like many Coen films, is mostly concerned with style, which is hardly a crime. But style should be used to service a noir, not the other way around. You're always aware this is a movie not so much about a story but about the conventions of vintage 1940s noir. And it is a pitch-perfect re-creation, with one exception: no vintage noir looked this good or was this obsessive.
Ed's hair is so perfect, all slick lines and grease, you'd think Joel and Ethan Coen genetically grew it from a Montgomery Clift follicle. My favorite touch is more subtle, but no less authentic for the period: Forever caught between Ed's fingers is an unfiltered cigarette, the butt permanently pinched. The Man Who Wasn't There gets its details so right, you can forgive it for being somewhat forgettable.