The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

Genres - Comedy Drama, Crime  |   Sub-Genres - Crime Drama, Post-Noir (Modern Noir)  |   Release Date - Oct 31, 2001 (USA - Limited)  |   Run Time - 117 min.  |   Countries - United Kingdom , United States   |   MPAA Rating - R
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Joel Coen and Ethan Coen have often been dogged by accusations that they're content to use their prodigious talent to do nothing more than celebrate their own cleverness, and that for all the snappy dialogue and visual flair, their films amount to cynical jokes at the expense of the dull-witted characters who populate them. The Man Who Wasn't There features striking cinematography and meticulous set design, both of which perfectly invoke the aura of film noir. Whether or not it's just another empty stylistic exercise, a noir homage with none of the genre's moral ambiguity or political subversiveness, it's still one of the Coen brothers' most involving explorations of self-delusion, irony, and fate. Billy Bob Thornton's Ed Crane is a man so nondescript that neighbors are always forgetting his name and no one seems to recognize him when he's not wearing his barber's smock. As he embarks on his poorly planned blackmail scheme, he even comes to see his invisibility as a kind of freedom, that is until the consequences of his actions begin to mount. Much like he did in Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, Thornton endows his character with a tragic dimension that gives the film a weight it might not otherwise possess. His prolonged silences and blank stares suggest a deep sadness that no one around him seems to see or care about. The film's central idea, that one impulsive action can set in motion a web of fate that ultimately ensnares the hero, not only pays tribute to pulp novelists like James M. Cain and Jim Thompson, it's also an implicit tribute to the German director Fritz Lang, whose American noirs often revolved around that very theme. Indeed, The Man Who Wasn't There includes a number of subtle references to Lang. Tony Shalhoub's blustery attorney Freddy Riedenschneider's name resembles that of a Lang character, and he repeatedly talks about "this German guy named Werner, or was it Fritz," while bathed in cinematographer Roger Deakins' gorgeous, high-contrast Langian light (this isn't the first reference to Lang in the Coen brothers' oeuvre; Blood Simple quotes an image from Lang's Ministry of Fear: bullets piercing a door, creating intense shafts of light in a darkened room). While the film follows a tragic trajectory, the Coens can't resist leavening it with oddball humor. Frances McDormand plays Doris Crane as a boozy, high-camp parody of those classic tough-talking noir heroines, and there are a couple of red herring subplots involving UFOs and a Lolita-esque neighborhood girl (Scarlett Johansson) in whose budding musical career Ed takes an interest. Amusing in themselves, these diversions do little to advance the plot, yet don't detract from the film's final impact, which tempers Ed's doom with a hint of transcendence.