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Still from 2001's "The Man Who Wasn't There."

The Man Who Wasn't There September 19, 2017


Joel Coen



Billy Bob Thornton

Frances McDormand

James Gandolfini

Tony Shalhoub

Michael Badalucco

Richard Jenkins

Scarlett Johansson

Jon Polito









1 Hr., 56 Mins.

any men likely know exactly how Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) feels. Bland and talentless, he's a man so average that even the things which make him average only seem to stick around out of circumstance. He lives in a pleasant one-story at the end of the lane, has a pretty wife (Frances McDormand) to come home to, and has a decently paying job. But we gather that he’s never been passionate about any of these possessions. He only has such a house because he had enough money and figured why not. He only has this wife because a handful of dates 


went well and both agreed they weren’t getting any younger. He only has his job (he’s the town barber) because Doris’ brother (Michael Badalucco) owned a business and he thought he’d join in.

But a scream is forever trapped in Crane’s lungs; he can feel himself being strangled by his lackadaisical existence. Every day is exactly the same, nothing to look forward to. He likes the thought of packing up his bags and leaving it all behind, but he’s also aware that a man of his nothingness will never know what it’s like to see a better day.


Crane lives in 1949, and his world mirrors the murky black-and-white world of a classic film noir. A cigarette always dangling from his mouth and his brow incessantly furrowed, he has the makeup of an archetypal noir anti-hero. Only his personal demons are not romanticized, and neither are his sins. Crane is already trapped in the purgatory that is the joyless nine-to-five life, so his also being locked in the cage of a pastiched fantasyland is but another layer from which he cannot move past.


The film which looks at Crane as its protagonist, The Man Who Wasn’t There, eventually reveals itself to be a sorry tale of blackmail, betrayal, and murder. Yet its aesthetic resemblance to that of a classic Nicholas Ray melodrama doesn’t tie into its genre inclinations. The lacking of color, along with the Hollywood Golden Age shine, has less to do with its being categorically similar to something like The Wrong Man (1956) and more to do with how fragmented and empty Crane’s life is. How the deficiency of pigmentation and the claustrophobic, coffee-stained cinematography are merely reflections of Crane’s disaffections.


We cannot imagine The Man Who Wasn’t There taking place in a different era nor being photographed in color. The post-World War II setting evokes ideas of repression and the disappointments that affected those who could not make the American dream happen for themselves. The photography accentuates Crane’s numbness. 


Because the movie would be so gratuitously despairing otherwise, we wonder  if the film’s makers, Joel and Ethan Coen, only threw in plot elements associated with film noir to make The Man Who Wasn’t There appear to be more than an exercise in small town misery.


Since the feature is permeated with woozy style and honey-slow pacing usually steeped in silence, though, it still mostly feels like an exercise in small town misery. The soap operatic detours hardly stir because they don’t seem to faze Crane much, either. Understandably: the Coens are going for the sort of psychological thriller in which the characters are more crucial than the set pieces.


But in viewing The Man Who Wasn’t There do we feel the way Crane does as he passively listens to his grotesque clients drone on about their boring lives. We pay careful attention to the fine details and spasmodically show signs of appreciation. But we can’t help but feel like the action in front of us is meaningless, vigorously empty. 


The Coens have constructed a believable account of an ordinary man’s disillusion with his life, and how that life comes to cross paths with sordid tales he might have only stumbled across at the movies. But for all its evocative style and immaculate performances (Thornton is so appropriately mournful we want to grab him by the shoulders and shake), The Man Who Wasn’t There leaves us cold. Perhaps that's the point. B

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