PRINT October 2001


The Man Who Wasn’t There

IN MICHAEL POWELL’S 1946 fantasy A Matter of Life and Death, the celestial messenger who shuttles between a monochrome afterlife and a color-saturated mortal sphere remarks: “One is starved for Technicolor up there.” Now that all movies are in color (even if it’s color mostly lacking the deep dyes Powell worked with), a different lament emerges: One is starved for black-and-white down here. For that reason alone Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There provides sustained pleasure. This ostensible homage to film noir doubles as homage to noir et blanc, the only appropriate medium for evoking that late-’40s small-town California that has become our Grimm Brothers forest: the place where anything can—and in the Coen Brothers’ world, does—happen.

Anything: You can even reenter the bars, kitchens, and bedrooms of 1949, savoring fabrics and textures with quiet fetishistic delight. Black-and-white (more properly, color stock printed in black-and-white) reappropriates lost time, in such profusion that while the mind follows the peripatetic movements of the busily plotted melodrama, another movie, only tangentially related, is being watched: a more or less abstract movie about sofas and girdles, carpeting and socks, the shadowy booths of cocktail lounges, and the afternoon light in downtown Santa Rosa. The grave moodiness of Roger Deakins’s cinematography often contrasts oddly with the Coens’ tendency toward compulsive cleverness and gag-driven exposition.

The Brothers have often played with hard-boiled material, most straightforwardly in the Hammett-inflected gangster epic Miller’s Crossing, elsewhere in a more devious spirit, with an evident desire at once to tell the story and parody it, even at the risk of overloading the circuits. Why make one movie when you can make twelve at the same time? Their restless inventiveness revels in narration but chafes at the restrictions and inevitabilities of linear plotting; superb storytellers, they often seem to tell a story to death, as if to demonstrate that it really wasn't about anything at all. The title of their newest feature nods to the void lurking in the center of their films. All those elaborate period trappings have been enlisted in the service of a story about terminal emptiness. The Coens have declared the film to have been inspired by the spirit of James M. Cain, and it bears some of the earmarks: There’s adultery, blackmail, multiple murder, a flamboyant trial lawyer. But Cain’s stories are about what happens when desire calls all the shots. Here we’re way beyond desire. The titular Man Who Wasn’t There, the barber Ed Crane, incarnated for nearly every second of screen time by Billy Bob Thornton, is as absolute an Underground Man as you could hope for, the very embodiment of Jim Thompson’s Nothing Man, a systematically unrelieved study in blank-faced motiveless isolation.

In Thornton’s remarkable if ultimately wearing performance, Ed Crane is defined by what he lacks: animation, empathy, wit, rascality, temper, spontaneity. To find life, you have to look away from Ed, toward the dozens of supporting actors and bit players for whom the Coens have, as usual, devised marvelous brief turns: But it’s hard to look away from someone who is the immovable center of the movie. Everything you see is through his eyes; every commentary you hear comes from him. His voice-over narration (he doesn’t talk much on-screen) drapes over the movie like a pall, like the monologue of a depressive morgue worker who won’t let you go until he’s finished his story. He chain-smokes so many cigarettes that you start to recoil from the stale residue of the fumes.

The funniest line in the movie comes during Ed’s account of how he met his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand). When after a few weeks of acquaintance she suggested they get married, he asked if she didn’t want to get to know him a little more. She replied, “You mean it gets better?” The presentation of Ed in the movie is a bit like that: You watch in the expectation that something further will be revealed, only to realize repeatedly that frame one was it. What you see is what you get: Billy Bob Thornton’s shaved, cadaverous visage not even attempting the little touches—a smile, a smirk, a quizzical shift of the lip—that might make him look alive.

The obvious question of why, in that case, Doris married him is the sort of detail that tends to get brushed aside here. She married him because, in order for there to be a plot, he needs a wife who can have an affair with someone whom he can then blackmail. Things happen not for reasons of their own but to provide indelible scenes, moments, jokes, shock effects. (If Fargo was the Coens’ most successful film it’s because of the way Frances McDormand’s character asserted, for once, an independent life.) The movie becomes something like a concept album, stuffed with amusing bonus tracks and unusual instrumentation.

The barbershop scenes are the closest the film gets to a sense of ineluctable reality. A quick documentary on styles of boys’ haircuts, a running gag about talkative barbers, the paraphernalia of clippers and towels, establishes the perfect milieu for the scary barber with the vacant eyes who never talks to anybody. The scene where he free-associates about the weirdness of human hair while giving a crew cut to a boy immersed in a Dead-Eye Western comic book evokes all the latent terror of barbershops. Where the Coens are most powerful is in the deployment of odd objects and gestures that can be woven into intricate patterns: The boy’s comic book rhymes with the pulp magazine for which Ed is telling his tale of doom, just as the moment when he shaves his wife’s legs in the bath rhymes with his own leg being shaved to ready him for electrocution.

What one wants from the movie, finally, is less. The brilliant cameos, the magnificently detailed art direction, the self-consciously outré plot twists, the flights of verbal commentary teasing out the meta-physical implications of a tawdry murder story, the cunningly placed allusions to Touch of Evil, Shadow of a Doubt, The Big Sleep, Double Indemnity, and probably a dozen other movies, begin to make it feel like a superbly drawn comic book whose artist felt compelled to fill in every available space until design was devoured by detail. Those old B movies like Bodyguard (1948), Impact (1949) and Roadblock (1951), the ones where not-so-brainy guys stumbled into lethally complicated traps that snapped shut in the last reel, didn’t benefit from a tenth of the sustained creative work that has gone into The Man Who Wasn’t There—they were more or less knocked together on the assembly line—but when they took a shot it tended to connect.

The diffuseness becomes more apparent in the story’s latter reaches. At moments it’s hard to know if we’re on the brink of doom or on the brink of a Saturday Night Live skit. The giveaway is when a central character commits suicide and you realize how little you’ve been made to care about such an eventuality. Affectlessness, the affectlessness of Ed Crane, is in a sense what the movie is all about: We’ve been living for two hours exclusively in that hapless protagonist’s consciousness, an essentially literary device that has always translated uneasily to the screen. In the end he proves less interesting than the world whose surfaces we are permitted to explore underneath the mad barber’s ruminations. It is those surfaces, and the perfectionist intensity with which they are teased out, that give the movie its share of pulp poetry.

Geoffrey O’Brien, editor in chief of the Library of America, is the author of Hardboiled America (Da Capo, 1997) and The Phantom Empire: Movies in the Mind of the Twentieth Century (Norton, 1993).