THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, by the acclaimed Coen brothers, director and co-writer
Joel and co-writer Ethan, is an exquisite film noir shot on fine grain color
stock and printed in gorgeous and expressive black and white. The movie
premiered at this year's Cannes film festival, where it tied for the Best
Director Award. If it can be argued that the Coen brothers' pictures are an
acquired taste, I guess that most people are still acquiring it. I've liked
films of theirs that most others didn't (THE BIG LEBOWSKI), hated some that got
mixed reviews (O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU) and loved some that just about
everybody loved (FARGO).
In THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, Billy Bob Thornton is the movie. He is not only
the lead character, Ed Crane, but also the story's constant narrator, which is
handy since Ed's a taciturn kind of guy. If a building were in flames, he'd
probably stay silent, figuring that, if he waits, someone else will yell,
"Fire!" Thornton's minimalist performance is perhaps the best piece of acting
that he's ever done. Every time he appears on the screen, it is as if time
freezes. He's mesmerizing in the part.
Ed's the second chair barber in a small Northern California town. Set in the
late 1940s, when land yachts still had some class, the movie takes place mainly
in interior settings, although the few cruises down the country roads form the
film's most impressive visuals.
Ed doesn't have much ambition, and his only desire in life would probably be for
people to stop gabbing so much. This all changes one day when a seedy stranger,
Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), comes into town with a "business proposition."
With his bad toupee, poorly fitting suit and pudgy body, Creighton is not
exactly the sort to inspire confidence, but he describes to Ed a revolutionary
new process called "dry cleaning." All Creighton needs is a silent partner to
put up $10,000 to get the business started.
With no money but a cheating wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), Ed figures the way
to get the money is to blackmail her lover, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini,
In one of his many reflective scenes, Ed tells us how Doris, an alcoholic,
suggested to Ed that they get married after dating for only three weeks. Ed's
story of the proposal is typical of the script's wonderfully dry sense of humor.
"Don't you want to get to know me better?" he asked her. "Why?" she asked in
reply, "Does it get better?"
Needless to say, there are a few complications along the way which lead to a
trial. Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) is the high priced lawyer hired
by the defense. An attorney with a big ego -- "I litigate. I don't capitulate."
-- he is a firm believer in such esoteric defense strategies as employing the
Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, even if he can't ever seem to get the name
A couple of small subplots add a little variety. One concerns a promising high
school pianist, Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johansson), whom Ed wants to help.
Another concerns Ed's interest in the growth and styling of hair. Both add
delicate spice to the plot without ever spoiling it.
A very quiet movie with little ambient sound, with occasional staccato piano
pieces and with the aforementioned stunning cinematography, it allows one to
concentrate on the picture's best aspect, Billy Bob Thornton's pensive yet
subtly nuanced facial expressions, which alone are worth the price of
THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE runs 1:55. It is rated R for a scene of violence and
would be acceptable for teenagers.
My son Jeffrey, age 12, found that this wasn't his cup of tea, giving it just
1/2 of a star. He said that his favorite part was when it was over. He found
the lead character uninteresting and the movie boring. His only positive
comment was that some of the comedy was "okay."
Copyright © 2001 Steve Rhodes