Step right up, ladies and gents, and check out what the Coen brothers have up their sleeve in The Man Who Wasn’t There: Meditative Pacing! Ironic Detachment! Existential Dread! Yup, director Joel Coen and his producer, brother Ethan — this is the ninth film they’ve written together — deliver everything that audiences are running from in these perilous times. Bless them. Hell, filmgoers can’t live by white bread alone. None of the cozy mush of Serendipity for the Coen boys.
Set in the sleepy California town of Santa Rosa during the doldrums of 1949, The Man Who Wasn’t There stars Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane, a barber who cuts hair in a shop owned by his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco) while Ed’s wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), cheats on him with her married department-store boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini). What does Ed do? He smokes, stares and says nothing.
Spooked yet? If you tune into the Coen vibe, you will be. Man traffics in blackmail, murder, bad barbering and a blow job perpetrated on Ed by a teenage hussy. But I’m rushing things — a Coen no-no. Detractors of the brothers say (not always unfairly) that their films are slow, showy and slightly condescending. OK, these sons of college professors can act like smarty-pants. But at their best (Fargo; Miller’s Crossing; O Brother, Where Art Thou? and — full confession — I can’t get enough of The Big Lebowski), Coen films deftly blend style and substance. For all its lapses, Man is steadily engrossing and devilishly funny, and, o brother, does it look sharp. Shot in black and white by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, Man hauntingly evokes such Forties film-noir classics as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. Both those films were adapted from novels by James M. Cain, whose pulp style is a Coen inspiration, though Cain never imagined crime fiction that included a musical montage on haircuts and an alien visitation. Somehow, with the Coens, it all fits.
One of the pleasures of this film is watching Thornton bring flesh and feeling to a character who describes himself as a ghost. It’s not easy rousing Ed, until a customer, Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), gives the barber an investment tip that rivals the advice Dustin Hoffman got in The Graduate about plastics. “Dry cleaning,” says Creighton, offering Ed a piece of the action for $10,000. How to get it? Extortion, natch. Ed knows his wife is boffing Big Dave and that Big Dave’s heiress wife, Ann (Katherine Borowitz), would cut her husband off like a pesky cowlick if she found out.nd so the plot congeals with the thick scum of bloody murder. What’s Ed thinking? His voice-over narration is no help: “Yeah, sure, I’m a barber. But I never considered myself a barber.” Thanks, fella. Those mischievous Coens make Ed hard to read at first and distract us with the flashier characters. You can’t take your eyes off McDormand, who makes Ed’s two-timing clotheshorse of a wife a vulnerable woman awakening late to her own sexuality. Gandolfini is a force of nature, and when Big Dave’s greed leaves him cornered, he’s a fearsome sight (if a little too much like Tony Soprano). For sheer scene-stealing bravado, nobody beats Tony Shalhoub as Freddy Riedenschneider — are those Coens great with names, or what? — the natty lawyer who never loses (“I litigate, I don’t capitulate”).
The thing to remember is: What we see in these characters, Ed sees, too. And Thornton’s subtle, precise performance registers bruised emotion even if it passes in a flicker. Only jailbait Birdy Abundas (a wonderfully sly Scarlett Johansson) catches Ed off guard, and it’s not just her skill at playing Beethoven on a grand piano that grabs him. But, hey, no fair spilling the beans. If there is more to The Man Who Wasn’t There than meets the eye or the demands of narrative coherence, don’t sweat it. The better films right now, such as David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, boldly push us into uncharted territory. Think of Bogie in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon, when he cradles that chunk of cold black stone and makes a point that goes to the not- so-stony heart of what film is to the Coens: “Ah, the stuff that dreams are made of.”