The Coen brothers´ latest effort has been billed as a film noir. Shot beautifully in black and white, The Man Who Wasn´t There pays tribute to a number of older film noir classics. Written, directed and produced by the Coen brothers and starring Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand and James Gandolfini this film has received mixed reviews.
The storyline is typically bizarre. There is an affair, some blackmail, a touch of murder and some legal maneuvering. The film is narrated by the main character, the monosyllabic Ed Crane, played by Thornton. The guy seems disconnected from the world, emotionally detached and deeply unhappy. His wife is also having problems with life, which she deals with by assuming a tough as nails persona.
Ed is a barber; he works with the loudmouth brother of his wife, played by Badalucco. He feels unsatisfied with his life and sees a variety of ways to improve it, to potentially escape from daily mundanity. The story soon becomes quite complicated as a dramatic series of events plays itself towards a satisfying conclusion, albeit a deeply sad one. This film is not a comedy, there are the same flashes of quirky humour that the Coen brothers are known for, but they are few and far between and have a poignant feel to them.
The acting is superb. Thornton acts mainly through facial expressions, as his character says very little, yet he is able to convey a great deal of thought and emotion to the audience. Thornton has always seemed a fairly good character actor but he excels himself in this film. McDormand was excellent as the fierce, heavy drinking wife. She was completely believable and succeeded in simultaneously evoking sympathy and disgust. As usual with the Coen´s the smaller appearances and cameos are acted superbly as well, adding some gravity and depth to the overall story line.
The script was brilliant, some clever dialogue and interesting ideas. I particularly liked the big shot lawyer, fast-talking, arrogant and flash. Throughout the film there were frequent nods to old classics like the Big Sleep. The camera shots are terrific in places and there is a real atmosphere built up throughout the film, which adds to the events.
The sound and look of the film fit perfectly with the intended genre. For anyone worried about the fact this is black and white I can reassure you it works very well. Some of the shots are so vivid it almost seems as though there is colour, but the lack of it helps to emphasise the depressed mood and bleak outlook of Ed. The lighting is incredible indicative of the attention to detail shown throughout.
This film is dark, brooding and slow-paced. The story jumps around in time and there is no great revelatory ending, but I don´t think that´s a bad thing. The sadness and emptiness of the central character come through strongly and while the movie is extremely enjoyable and beautifully crafted, it leaves you feeling melancholy.
As the story develops it is impossible not to sympathise with the quiet main character, and the tragedies that befall him are made all the more tragic by his attempts to deal with them. Ultimately it is a thoughtful and deeply sad study of a man who remains emotionally detached from the world and the other people around him. We are drawn into his struggle to make sense of it all. A brilliant film, captivating from start to finish, I would recommend it highly.