The Coen Brothers are no strangers to dour films with masterpieces such as “Fargo,” “No Country for Old Men” and “A Serious Man,” but their 2001 film noir is as gracefully desolate, lonely and saddening as any film they’ve ever made. Rarely is a film as beautiful as “The Man Who Wasn’t There” also this bleak.
The title refers to Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a man so empty of expressions, motivations or purpose that he literally seems absent minded from this world. He cuts hair for a living, but he’s never considered himself a barber.
So what is he? He looks at his wife (Frances McDormand) who he married after two weeks of dating and doesn’t seem to know either. The only thing he does know is that she’s having an affair with her boss, the successful department store owner Big Dave (James Gandolfini).
Ed decides to take a chance on an entrepreneur with the revolutionary idea of dry cleaning. He gets him the investment money by blackmailing Big Dave with the knowledge of his affair, and as is true of any noir, things begin to tumble with a little bit of crime and violence.
All noirs in some shape seem to deal with the loner figure thrown into a dark and dreary world of mystery. But “The Man Who Wasn’t There” subtracts the crime procedural and opens up a depressingly morbid tale of how nearly all men are empty and without purpose as the film gets lonelier and sadder.
It bites so painfully because the whole story is narrated with Thornton’s dry tact. He’s an actor that can show expression through emptiness, and as distant as we feel from truly knowing his character, we’re immersed in his thoughts.
But the most notable dichotomy of the film is how vividly this bleak story is illustrated. Roger Deakins, a nine time Oscar nominee, is quite possibly the best cinematographer working today, and here he has made a drop dead gorgeous film.
Shot after stunning shot, the film glimmers in stark, often unnatural lighting with strict attention to detail in highlighting and shrouding the film’s many hardened and saddened faces. The Coens allow for their film to be brilliantly dark amidst such dressy settings in a way few other filmmakers can.
“The Man Who Wasn’t There” is a remarkable, if depressingly dreary film, but then all the best noir is.
3 ½ stars