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The Man Who Wasn't There

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: The Man Who Wasn't There

Starring: Billy Bob Thorton, James Gandolfini
Director: Joel Coen
Rated: R
RunTime: 116 Minutes
Release Date: November 2001
Genres: Comedy, Drama, Suspense

*Also starring: Jon Polito, Adam Alexi-Malle, Michael Badalucco, Frances McDormand, Tony Shalhoub, Ted Raimi

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1.  Jerry Saravia review follows movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewmovie review
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4.  Harvey Karten read the review ---
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Review by Jerry Saravia
4 stars out of 4

I can't figure the Coens out. First, they craft a beautifully filmed atrocity like "O'Brother, Where Art Thou?" and the next year, they craft one of the best films of their career, "The Man Who Wasn't There." Go figure. The Coens are nuts but I like the fact that you never know what they will come up with next. "The Man Who Wasn't There" is a return to their film noir roots, originated by "Blood Simple" and later followed by "Fargo." What is astounding is not so much the noir elements of their latest story but that the look and feel of the film is an homage to the film noir of the 1930's and 40's with rich blacks and silhouettes clouding every scene. And those who consider black-and-white photography to be pretentious have no concept of what film noir is.

Billy Bob Thornton stars as a laconic barber named Ed Crane who works in the small town of Santa Rosa, California, circa 1949. He is married to the usually drunk Doris Crane (Frances McDormand) who is cheating on him. It turns out she is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini), who is ready to improve his store and make adjustments. Ed Crane indirectly sends a note demanding 10,000 dollars from Big Dave in exchange for keeping quiet about the affair. Only Ed has something else in mind with the money. A fastidious dry-cleaning salesman (Coen regular Jon Polito) needs a partner for his business and Ed happily obliges. Of course, it is unwise and unfair to say much more because the film is not as dependent on surprise as it is on characters who act on instinct, thus surprising us at every turn with their motives. The Coens have expressed their admiration for the late "dirty" novelist James Cain, who penned the deliciously naughty film noir classic "Double Indemnity." But the Coens are not as interested on twists and turns as they are on Ed's dilemna that shifts from a murder where someone else is wrongly held responsible to a life where he questions his own life, adding an analogy about how hair grows back even when someone is dead. There are hints of other aspects to Ed's life, namely that he is living a pointless existence. He is a damn good barber and sees himself as more than just a barber, but what else is he? In one tense scene, Big Dave even asks Ed, "what kind of man are you?" Ed barely smiles much, has nothing to say and pays particular attention to other people's thoughts. He is not happily married but is devoted to his wife enough to shave her legs while she takes a bath, knowing full well she is adulterous. Ed also wants to help a seemingly talented pianist, Birdy (Scarlett Johansson), despite the fact th at she has no interest in a musical career. It is obvious that Ed is unhappy in his station in life and wants to move on to other things, like the dry-cleaning business. In the world of film noir, the fatalistic antihero is usually virile and potent in his sexual drive drawn to circumstances beyond his moral control. Ed is not your usual protagonist - he is not quite virile, definitely asexual and possibly impotent but he also means well. He is not quite driven to circumstances beyond his control because he basically instigates them - he just has no control of the consequences. Ed is also an observer of other people and their actions and Billy Bob Thornton is superb at evoking simple gestures through looks and glances - he is such a powerfully magnetic actor that his eyes say it all. Moments like the dinner sequence come to mind where he sees his wife laughing up a storm with Big Dave while he sits quietly nodding and barely smiling. I also enjoyed the scene where he observes Birdy talking to a male friend of hers and you see a glimmer of jealousy in his eyes. But the sexuality of Ed is also put to the test, such as the scene where the perspiring salesman makes a pass at him , or where Birdy wants to please Ed for his interest in her future in ways he had not intended. Ed wants to help people if for no better reason than to improve his life or bring some joy to an empty, pointless life.

"The Man Who Wasn't There" is consistenly intriguing and gratifying from start to finish. The Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakins have encapsulated everything about noir they have learned to instill a sense of dread and impending doom. Just like David Lynch's "Muholland Drive," there is also a fascination with the era of the late 40's and early 1950's when Roswell and communism were majorly hot topics and when couples had to learn how to live inside a house together after the war. Some of this is beautifully realized in the scenes between Ed and Doris who seem uneasy in their comfortable home - they just learn to get used to each other.

"The Man Who Wasn't There" is film noir with a postmodernist edge only in its depiction of a man who is not quite here or there - he is a nobody with no ego. Like "The Deep End," it represents a new route for the film noir leading men and women characters where they remain unaffected by the twists and turns their lives take, unaware of what is coming ahead. Pure fatalism in an existential climate where men and women do not participate in their fates as much as observe them.

Copyright 2001 Jerry Saravia

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