23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on January 13, 2004
I normally wind up with mixed emotions when it comes to films from the Coen brothers but I think they've got all their tricks in line with this one.
Those in the know with classic literature will easily notice that the "Man who wasn't..." is based on Camus' famed book "The stranger". The equations between this great book and the film are well balanced: the book is provoking and so is the film.
The plot is about a barber working in a small town. His life has all the tell-tale signs of a "nobody-special" man like him: his job isnt taking him anywhere, his marriage is a flat and boring non-relationship, his wife is double-timing him with one of his "friends", and he himself, well he doesn't seem to bother much about all that, or actually he doesn't seem to care about anything.
Life drags dully on, until the arrival of someone who tells the barber of his plan to hit the market with a new revolutionary business plan: dry cleaning. The whole scheme sounds attractive and has money-making potential written all over it but the missing element is the capital. The barber's mind goes on an interesting vortex of planning. He blackmails his well-off friend who has the affair with his wife for a nice bulky sum. That seems to work, the money is given, and then given on to the dry-cleaning guy and then, well, perhaps predictably, the wheels of the wagon start coming off in disturbing and untimely manner.
Without fully realising how it all happened, the barber winds up in a plot which involves a murder he commited, his wife in jail accused for it, the dry-cleaning guy gone with the dough, him looking for a good lawyer to save his wrongly accused wife, and in the midst of it all, he still seems to deal with this nicely unraveling disaster very apathetically.
But his apathy isnt rewarded much as thing keep becoming more intricate and more threatening.
Just as it had been with his wife, he tries to start a relationship in extremely platonic terms with another young woman, but alas, that comes to spell his ultimate doom. No need to reveal the cool bringing-it-all together ending of the film especially for those that havent seen the film.
But besides a great story line, "The man who wasn't..." is blessed with other assets too, mainly the stellar performances from Thortnton himself who gives apathy a new look, and F.Mcdormand who (as usual) is exemplary in her role. But also the usually underrated J.Gandolfini is great as are all the second characters as well.
The Coen bros. do wonders with the camera, the lights and the reenacting of the 30s atmosphere making this an unheralded masterpiece.
While the film is actually a take on the philosophy about life, or to be more specific, an approach that reads "who cares really, let it all unwind and see what happens", it will go down easily with mostly anybody. The characters portrayed here are as real-life as they come and the depiction of the basic faults (?) of human nature is given to perfection.
Greed, scheming, extreme selfishness, hypocrisy, and all the things that are products of the above come in display. And in the end as the "hero" from the barber shop sees it all collapse in smouldering flames he thinks: "maybe all this means that I'm going to a better place. Who's to say"..And that's the thing really: who's to say?
Great film in all possible respects and quite probably the best made by the Coens so far.
54 of 63 people found the following review helpful
Here's a film that falls into the category of "classic noir," all but perfectly presented by the Brothers who are, in many ways, reinventing the movie. With stunning black-and-white cinematography and splendid performances by Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand (who, arguably, is one of the best actresses anywhere), the voiceover narrative of the unsmiling "hero" of the piece recounts the events leading up to his demise.
There is so much to like about this film: its faithful adherence to the exploration of small lives that become enlarged as a result of haphazard circumstance; its beautifully moody lighting and crisp images--where shadow has as much significance as light; and an overall evenness of tone that never for a moment hits a sour note.
Thornton, as the never-smiling barber with an acceptable life that is bereft of humor, of love, and of any viable friendship, gives a remarkably controlled performance that is perfectly matched by McDormand's barely contained appetite for love, for humor, for life, for something beyond the inertia of her marriage (to Thornton.) This is a film in which what goes unstated has as much power as what is; it also has what used to be referred to as a "sting in the tail" at the end.
Nothing can be anticipated in this film; the brothers exercise such great control over the material that even when the viewer thinks s/he knows what's coming, the surprise is there in the ironic ending.
A fine example of top-rate film-making, not to be missed.
35 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on March 6, 2002
After the crowd-pleasing knockabout comedy of the 30s-set "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" - a cheery, New Deal proposition which played out like "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang" under the direction of the Keystone Kops - the new Coen brothers movie adopts the grimly fatalistic tone of a 50s noir thriller, its brooding shadows cast by both the Second World War and the resulting paranoias. If "O Brother" was the "before" photo of an America singing its way out of a Depression, then "The Man Who Wasn't There" is the snapshot labelled "after". It's cold and dark, and is certain to put off as many visitors to the Coens' world as "O Brother" attracted.
Thornton, his nicotine-stained voiceover containing enough tar to merit a Government health warning, is Ed Crane, a small-town barber forever sweeping up after those around him. The most passive of active smokers, Crane barely moves for himself until the one false move he makes to kill off his wife's lover and set off a chain of events leading to his own demise; it doesn't come as too much of a surprise when this hero goes out not in a hail of bullets, but sitting down to die.
One of the great joys of a Coen movie is that they cast, right down to the minor roles, people who can act to the extent that it's a pleasure to spend every moment of a longish film in the same room as them. (Even in the non-speaking roles, the brothers cast fascinating faces.) "The Man Who Wasn't There" offers - aside from the more-than-capable Thornton, McDormand and Gandolfini in the lead roles - a supporting cast including Tony Shalhoub as a preening peacock of a lawyer, Jon Polito as the gay dry-cleaning entrepreneur who sets the story in (so far as one could call it) motion, and Michael Badalucco as Crane's verbose brother-in-law, getting the movie's most obvious, "O Brother"-style laughs in riding around on the back of pigs and winning pie-eating contests for the benefit of his young cousins.
Otherwise, the humour is muted and deadpan, existing in throwaway asides: this is a small town whose hotel, we learn, names its suites after operas. The film's funniest lines are those ascribed to other characters passing (unintentional) comment on the motionless hero: "Is he awake?," asks a physician at Crane's bedside, just after a road accident sparked by a young girl's assertion that the emotionless Ed is actually "an enthusiast".
The major talking point may be the look of the film. Whatever the ins and outs of the technical process whereby the brothers arrived at this quality of film stock, Director of Photography Roger Deakins here has access to aesthetically purer blacks and whites than any seen on the screen in the last forty years, and he makes notable use of the tonal palette this facilitates: you get a depth of field which allows an amazing grasp of the distance between a veil and a woman's face, or of the detail apparent when Ed submerges his wife's razor in her bath water, shaking hundreds of microscopic hairs to the bottom of the tub.
This sense of depth also applies to some of the themes apparent in the writing. Characterised by his lawyer as "the modern man", Crane is often framed in one-man-against-the-mass shots, walking against the flow of the crowd. This, I think, ties into the late 40s/paranoid 50s idea of "a modern man" as someone destined only to stand still - or, perhaps more expressively, doomed to do his own thing - while everyone else, their collective stock raised by the prosperity of the post-War boom years, gets rich quick around him. This was a period in which, if the McCarthyites didn't get you, the Commies would; if the Commies didn't get you, the A-bomb would; and if the A-bomb didn't get you, the Roswell aliens certainly would, so Ed's fundamental fatalism is perhaps entirely understandable. More importantly, "the modern man", in the Coens' eyes, is a sensitive type - Crane bemoans the fate of chopped hair - with no obvious outlet for what he's taken from life's hard knocks until it's just too late; his tentative and trembling relationship with a young pianist (Johansson) is exactly the sort of relationship the doomed hero of a 50s thriller would take up in the hope, for him as for us, of a last-reel redemption which invariably won't follow.
This idea of a hero unable - or unwilling - to do anything about his plight, and the Coens' trademark emotional reticence about such plights, means the film won't be for all tastes, but there's something undeniably compelling about the manner in which the filmmakers have humanised the old "what if a tree falls in a forest" riddle and wrestle with the resulting melancholy conundrum that haunts "The Man Who Wasn't There": what happens when a man who talks to nobody has nobody left to talk to?
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on November 18, 2002
I am typically too lazy to write, however the previous reviewer stirred me enough to demand a response. If you're interested in fast moving color films with stereotyped performances whose sole purpose is entertainment, then stick with Spielberg. I find it amazing that someone with such a poor understanding of film dares comment on it.
If you have an interest in film as an expressive medium and as a reflection of an individual's (or brothers') creative aspirations, you will perhaps at least appreciate the film. Furthermore, the cinematography is absolutely phenomenal, among the best I have ever seen (I dare rank it along side 'Last Year At Marienbad' in this respect).
This is the best Coen Bros. and among the best releases in the past several years.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 4, 2007
So, now I have two great movies ("Ghost World" and this) and two good movies ("The Curse of the Jade Scorpion" and "Joe Dirt") for 2001. Although I liked "Ghost World" better, on the whole, "Man Who Wasn't There" is a great movie, much better than "Curse of Jade Scorpion," which is something I thought I'd never say, not because I thought Woody Allen's movie was so great (face it, he's slipping), but because I could never get into a Coen brothers movie before, despite several attempts.
First of all, I thought Billy Bob Thornton's performance really kept the movie going along. He seems to be the only actor recently come up that understands the importance of subtle shifts in facial gestures and posture to create a mood or to change character. It was like a virtuoso performance, just watching him. He's a sort of "thinking man's actor," like Orson Welles, but without the bombast. I liked him in "The Apostle," but his character was more straightforward in that one. He's got the same thing going in "Man Who Wasn't there" that the great method actors, Brando, Clift, Landau and Strasberg had at their peak, which is really weird, because if you look at him in this one, Thornton looks like a cross between Montgomery Clift (after the car crash) and an older Martin Landau.
I loved the lawyer, played by Tony Shalhoub. He's so smooth and polished, and knows how to use words like a stiletto (thanks, Burt Lancaster, for that line). The scene in which Thornton's wife, Doris (played by Frances McDormand) kills herself is a screamer; He has absolutely no remorse over her death except for the fact it denied him an opportunity for courtroom pyrotechnics.
I also loved the references to such movies as "Double Indemnity" (though the name of the dept. store, 'Nirdlinger's' comes from the victims name in James M. Cain's book, not the movie, in which Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler changed it to 'Dietrichson,'
though there's a 'Dietrichson' in this movie [medical examiner], plus the plot is loosely based on 'Indemnity.'). The pansy (Jon Polito) stayed at "Hobart Arms," which is out of "The Big Sleep." The scene in which the kid diving finds the pansy was right out of "Night of the Hunter," and Billy Bob Thornton's undeterred enthusiasm in molding Birdie (Scarlett Johansson) into a great concert pianist reminded me of Jimmy Stewart's mania for reincarnating Judy as the dead Madeleine in "Vertigo." Of course that flops, and Scarlett Johannson gets Thornton into a car crash in an R-rated version of how John Garfield killed Lana Turner in "The Postman Always Rings Twice."
Of course, I knew beforehand that the cinematography was superb. I thought that meant "superb by today's substandards," but I'd put its camerawork up against "Double Indemnity," "Key Largo" or "Notorious."
The only drawback is that Carter Burwell's score was so laid back. This movie deserved a great, dramatic Germanic score, heavy on tubas, bassoons, double-basses and trombones. I liked the Beethoven sonatas played so flatly by Scarlett Johansson, but the score apart from them was sort of generic. So, I give this one 3-1/2 out of 4, based on the score. With a score like Max Steiner's (like"The Big Sleep"), Roy Webb ("Out of the Past"), Alfred Newman ("All About Eve"), Miklos Rosza ("Double Indemnity"), Franz Waxman ("Sorry, Wrong Number"), Henry Mancini ("Touch of Evil") or Bernard Herrmann ("Cape Fear" or "Vertigo"), this movie would have been 100% solid.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 2002
If you love old Hollywood movies and really great acting then check out this one. Billy Bob Thorton gives an awesome performance as the put-upon lead character with equally well performed characters by Tony Shaloub, Frances McDormand, James Fandolfini, and others. But be warned, if you don't or can't enjoy dark comedies, then do yourself a favor and skip this one. It isn't an idiotic summer blow-up movie, there isn't any women running around topless, and best of all though is this movie has great dialogue. If you enjoy old film noirs like anything by Hitchcock, then buy this one.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on May 26, 2002
Yet another disappointing commentary, it sounds more like a laugh track to a TV sit-com. The directors should prepare; I suggest they listen to John Sayles' commentary on the "Limbo" DVD or Steve Buscemi on "Tres Lounge" for models on what a commentary track should be instead of just winging it. I wanted to hear a serious discussion (inside gossip is also okay), not a lot of goofy laughter. I cut out after about thirty minutes; it was a frustrating and irritating thirty minutes.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on February 9, 2006
This may be the best Cohn brothers' movie yet. Stellar performances by all, and a plot that contains no loose ends adds up to a great nouveau film-noir flick that shows what could happen when an unsuspecting man starts to travel down the wrong road. The ending is almost transcendant. This is the kind of movie Albert Camus might have made if her were a film writer and director.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 3, 2003
This is actually one of very few movies that I purchased PRIOR to ever seeing it. I had good feelings about it. My feelings were right.
This is a wonderful movie about a barber "Ed Crane" (Billy Bob) who lives a very quiet, mediocre life with his wife with whom he has a very shallow relationship. But that's only the beginning. There is so much more depth to Ed Crane and his life that is slowly revealed throughout the movie.
Ed Crane doesn't say much. He doesn't have to. It's obvious his life is less than perfect. Anyway, in the movie Ed Crane is almost invisible. I don't want to give too much away ... you need to see it for yourself. I will say that the movie is very deep and touching ... you won't forget it. Who would suspect the barber... He just cuts the hair. Crane's nonchalant attitude throughout the movie was intriguing to say the least. And the ending is unexpected. But then again, everything in the movie is. It's a mystery ... it's a drama. A dramery. I just made it up. It works.
The *New* black and white, film noir-look of the movie is very cool. They should make more movies that way (film it in color and then change it to black and white). It really made the movie better, I thought. It's definitely hard NOT to watch this movie. It keeps you glued to the screen wondering what will happen next. It's NOT predictable. That's part of it's charm. This was just a very surprising movie in general. I highly recommend it. I don't regret buying it at all. "The Man Who Wasn't There" is different ... in a good way. I wish more movies were like this one.
A movie I suggest if you like this one (w/ great character development): ABOUT SCHMIDT.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Once again, the Coen Brothers have crafted an exquisite period story on film. Following up on the sepia tone of "O Brother..." the look of this film is darker with more a distinct range of black and white hard edges and shadows, rather than simply a grey patina. It fits the mood, which centers around a simple barber (Billy Bob Thronton) in 1940's Santa Rosa, California, his somewhat antsy wife (Frances McDormand) and a local merchant who may be a crook (James Gandolfini). Simply put (and it's not), it tells the tale of a man who just wants a little bit more out of life and the price he has to pay. Thornton is good as the man with little to say and McDormand is brilliant as the unhappy wife who bites off a little more than she can chew. The Coen Brothers always throw in valuable side characters to intensify the drama and give a wilder spin to the story. I won't reveal any more of the plot, but suffice it to say, it's full of twists and surprises. Brilliant performances are had by every actor (check out the sleazy little salesman who barters with Thorton - "wink"). Besides being a fun story, paced just right, the look is fantastic, as usual. It seems the Coen's frame each shot as if it were meant to be an 8 X 10.