Why I Love… #19: The Man Who Wasn’t There

Year: 2001

Director: Joel Coen

Stars: Billy Bob Thornton (Ed Crane), Frances McDormand (Doris Crane), James Gandolfini (Big Dave Brewster), Michael Badalucco (Frank), Scarlett Johansson (Birdy Abundas), Tony Shalhoub (Freddy Riedenschneider), Richard Jenkins (Walter Abundas), Jon Polito (Creighton Tolliver)

Genre: Film Noir / Comedy

Pick your favourite Coen Brothers movie. Go on, pick. Got one? Now let me be presumptuous. You probably picked either The Big Lebowski, Fargo, No Country For Old Men, True Grit or O Brother Where Art Thou. These are a) their most accessible films, and b) their most commercially and critically successful films. I’ve heard people passionately enthuse on each one, assured that they’re talking about a genuine modern classic. In 3 out of 5 cases, I’d agree with them. Let me be even more presumptuous. You didn’t pick The Man Who Wasn’t There.

I picked it.

Of course, it’s a close-run thing – especially with the endlessly enjoyable The Big Lebowski in the mix – but if pushed, I’d settle with their little-seen 2001 black and white movie starring Billy Bob Thornton as a barber who dreams of becoming a dry-cleaner. A barber who dreams of becoming a dry-cleaner. That’s genuinely what this is about. It’s kind of incredible anyone signed on with funding on that basis. I imagine the Coens’ reputation helped this one along some. It was a typically contrary move on the Coens’ part. Fargo, Lebowski and O Brother had seen them become household names, albeit bracketed as ‘cult’. It would have been the perfect time to capitalise upon such success with a genuine crossover hit. But no, instead they chose to make this. The story of a barber who dreams of becoming a dry-cleaner.

There’s more of course. The movie is deeply indebted to James M. Cain and the film noir movies of the 1940s (this movie is set in 1949). As such this is a deliciously twisting tale of blackmail and murder, as monosyllabic Ed Crane quietly digs himself a hole as he pursues a new business venture. Only as things unravel against him do the ironies of his choices come to the fore, the innocent bystanders get hurt, and Crane can only drag on his cigarette and ponder how things ended up so screwy.

Devotees of the Coen Brothers will be familiar with their wry sense of humour, and perhaps more so than in any other film of theirs, it is rife in The Man Who Wasn’t There. This is not the large laugh-out-loud comedy of The Big Lebowski, but nearer to the wiliness of Fargo. The laughs are not ‘gags’, but observations – the funny turns of phrase that people use, ill-conceived plans, the gobbledygook spoken by so many at the expense of serious thought. Crane is surrounded by ‘gabbers’ – his brother-in-law Frank, yarn-spinning Big Dave Brewster, shady businessman Creighton Tolliver and hot-shot lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub has never been better). Crane says very little throughout the film, instead letting his narration speak for his disillusion. Crane’s weary perspective on his fellow humans is the source of much of the film’s dark joys. It is a malicious humour, making it also perhaps the brothers’ most deliciously mean-spirited work.

This darkness is heightened by Roger Deakins’ exceptional photography. The crisp black and white is filled with deep, deep black shadows, as beautiful, moody and stylish as any Double Indemnity or Out Of The Past. In fact, some of it is so exceptionally composed as to recall the expressionism of The Night Of The Hunter (Why I Love… #5).  The scene in which Riedenschneider rhapsodises about uncertainty a clear highlight.

But even when the film is at its darkest, there remains an important glint in the eye. A crafty wink. On the DVD audio commentary – the Coens’ only talk track to date, and a cracking one – they affirm how much humour they see in this work, and it’s infectious. Every time I watch The Man Who Wasn’t There it gets funnier. They are backed up by their usual favour for motifs. Here, it’s the shape of a flying saucer, which repeats in hubcaps, lampshades and even in UFOs, as the cultural phenomenon of the Roswell story sweeps the nation (except here, the paranormal hotspot is Eugene, Oregon. Outside Eugene). And, of course, there’s the ever-problematic case-filled-with-money; the Coen Brothers’ most trusted MacGuffin.

All of which makes for a caustic collision of the darkly serious and the frankly absurd. It’s an odd mix, and one that did not strike me as outstanding on first viewing. I bought The Man Who Wasn’t There on DVD in the summer of 2002 just to see it (it was easy to miss at the cinemas), and my immediate reaction was not regret, but I was hardly bowled over. If memory serves I bought it at the same time as Mulholland Drive – a movie which immediately swept me into another world, a movie I obsessed over (Why I Love… #1). Yet now, I’d place both of these films in my top 5 of all time. I love The Man Who Wasn’t There. It has insidiously got under my skin, revealing its gems slowly, craftily.

The way Ed awkwardly joins a crowd exiting a public building, clearly at a loss amongst them. Walter Abundas’ drunken confusion over which direction Sacramento lies in. The recurring outbursts of “What kind of man are you!?” Scarlett Johansson’s disarmingly young appearance. An incredibly strange flashback sequence notable for how mundane it is. All of this and so many other quirks coalesce into what I can only flounder at to describe. The word that comes to mind more than any is masterpiece. But a particular kind of masterpiece. Like A Serious Man, you’ll either ‘get’ it or you won’t. And you might not ‘get’ it immediately. I didn’t. But thank God for perseverance. This is now a film I genuinely love.

But Ed Crane would not approve of my adjective-riddled enthusiasm. I’ve become a ‘gabber’. Better to stand back, smoke a cigarette (or not in my case), and nod. Let the film speak for itself.

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