The Man Who Wasn't There (R16)

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The ViewAuckland Review

Review byMatthew Turner25/10/2001

Five out of five stars

Running time: 115 mins

If you’re a fan of the Coen Brothers or 1940s film noir movies, you’ll adore this – stunning photography, terrific performances from a note-perfect cast, and a wonderful, dryly-comic script. One of the best films of the year.

The films of the Coen Brothers can be roughly divided into two types: their quirky original pieces with their own agendas (Fargo, Barton Fink, Raising Arizona)

Then there's their note-perfect pastiche films, derived from their favourite pulp writers or film-makers (Blood Simple from James M. Cain’s novels, The Big Lebowski from Chandler’s novels, Miller’s Crossing from Dashiell Hammett).

The Man Who Wasn’t There fits squarely into the latter category, once again taking the novels of James M. Cain (who wrote noir classic Double Indemnity) and using all the conventions of a typical 1940s film noir picture.

Billy Bob Thornton (looking fabulous) stars as Ed Crane, a 1940s barber content with the easy life, married to Frances McDormand's Doris Crane. Eventually he comes to suspect she's having an affair with her boss Big Dave (superbly played by James Gandolfini, aka Tony Soprano).

He decides to blackmail him, in order to raise capital to go in on out-of-towner Jon Polito's dry-cleaning business. This being a Coen Brothers film and a film noir pastiche, however, things go Horribly Wrong…

There’s so much to enjoy here, that it’s bordering on criminal. The dialogue is jam-packed with quotable lines and the supporting performances are uniformly terrific: Tony Shalhoub is typically brilliant as the hotshot lawyer ("I'm a lawyer, you're a barber - you don't know anything").

Jon Polito is wonderfully sleazy as The Pansy and Scarlett Johansson (soon to be seen in Ghost World, in which she’s superb) is Very Lovely Indeed as 'Birdy'.

It’s Thornton who’s the standout though, revealing a previously untapped talent for deadpan humour - the sight of him smoking and wondering "Dry cleaning. Was I crazy to be thinking about it?" is worth the price of admission alone.

Even though Ed is a man of few words on screen (though he provides the narration in true noir style), Thornton makes us genuinely care about him – don’t be surprised to see him Oscar-nominated in 2002.

One of the many defining tricks of film noir is the use of shadow, often to depict bars of darkness that entrap the characters. That's done wonderfully here, too, courtesy of the Coen’s regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins, who apparently shot on colour stock and then transferred to black and white.

At any rate, black and white photography hasn't looked this gorgeous since the 1940s.

Sadly, it’s true that the film may not prove popular with audiences unfamiliar with either the Coens or film noir movies. (The title, incidentally, refers to a line in Double Indemnity: "I was like a ghost. I didn't see anybody and no-one saw me", a line that's repeated verbatim in The Man Who Wasn’t There).

There’s also a bit involving UFOs that seems somehow out of place, though this is a small quibble that pales into insignificance alongside all the many wonderful scenes and moments.

Ultimately, then, Coen fans are in for an absolute treat, albeit one that may leave the uninitiated somewhat cold. At any rate, this is still one of the best films of the year, and one that leaves no doubt that the Coens are the most consistently brilliant film-makers in America today. Highly recommended.

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Content updated: 08/12/2019 10:18

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