As Oscar night looms like a fearsome totem of
utter predictability and interminable length movie glory, the Coens are once again at the heart of many a cinematic discussion. True Grit has been bandied about as a serious contender in some of the major categories, although it’s unlikely to find the kind of success as No Country For Old Men did a few years back, and the enigmatic Minnesotan brothers are once more being touted as masters of their craft. Rightly so.
Of course, aficionados of Joel and Ethan’s work – your author included – have been on board this bandwagon for a fair while, and with their latest film still in UK cinemas and garnering all sorts of attention, it’s a good time to consider their cinematic back-catalogue. Classics like Fargo, Miller’s Crossing and the aforementioned No Country should already be in the ‘viewed’ pile of nearly every film enthusiast, but the brothers’ 2001 film The Man Who Wasn’t There has been somewhat lost in the shuffle.
Set in 1949 California, the film follows Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane, a barber who smokes incessantly and barely says a word to anybody. His life is unremarkable in almost every way – “we just cut the hair,” Ed says – until he meets businessman Creighton Tolliver, who offers him the chance, for $10,000, to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing: dry cleaning. Having long known his wife Doris (Frances McDormand) and her boss Big Dave (James Gandolifini) are having an affair, he anonymously blackmails Big Dave for the money to invest, and things start to slip away from there…
Even from this brief synopsis, it’s not hard to know that this is a Coen Brothers movie. Its themes of isolation, small-town ambition, underlying criminality and some excellent character names – Tony Shaloub’s smooth lawyer Freddie Riedenschneider probably has the pick of them – are all hallmarks of the brothers’ style, and The Man Who Wasn’t There certainly subscribes to the Coen format. Snappy dialogue, a revolving door of supporting actors and some unexpected scenes of violence and vice are all expected features of a Coens film, and The Man… certainly has all the boxes ticked.
The brothers’ script, as one would expect, is crammed full of panache and wit but also dappled with moments of poignance, but for large parts of the movie, nothing is said. Thornton, as Crane, is very much a blank slate, and clearly the man of the film’s title, barely saying a word or engaging with anyone in a conversation for nine-tenths of the film. The scenes which work best in the first act use Crane as a silent foil, as ebullient characters like Tolliver or brother-in-law Frank bounce rhetorical dialogue off him with incredible speed and skill. As the blackmail plot takes hold, however, the underlying tragedy of the movie – and of Crane’s life – becomes apparent, and the comedic flourishes so synonymous with the Coens’ style fade into the background.
“I got it made, you could say,” Crane says in the opening act, but as soon as our barber protagonist agrees to give Tolliver money we know it’s all downhill from there. The blackmail of Big Dave for the money gradually disintegrates Crane’s blanket of quiet safety, a fact made all the more tragic because it’s clear to the everyone else that Tolliver is, in fact, a swindler: “here’s the partnership papers. No need to show them to a lawyer,” he says after Ed hands his ill-gotten cash over.
Thornton has a tough task on his hands with Ed, but does brilliantly: he has one of those faces, and his ability to emote without really doing anything is impressive. Playing a character who essentially says and does nothing most of the time, he manages to convey the inner strife of Ed Crane, his voiceover offering a couple of telling insights and his lack of engagement with the world shown as a horrible trait he can’t avoid. Other characters seem to float around Ed, many of them forgetting his name straightaway, and the Coens do a wonderful job of showing us Ed’s world; the black-and-white film used throughout paints a picture not just of ’40s America but also of Ed’s bipolar view of things. The supporting cast are superb, Gandolfini and Shaloub especially, each managing to fashion a believable character with precious little screentime and dialogue.
So why has it been so overlooked? Perhaps, firstly, because it ticks so many Coen boxes. Following on just a year after the brilliant O Brother Where Art Thou? it was certainly a tough task to keep the quality up, and it’s possible that The Man suffered because of the expectation associated with a Coens film in the early 2000s.
However, this is a rather trite piece of reasoning. The reason that The Man Who Wasn’t There is not usually held up alongside the Coen masterpieces is that, honestly, it’s just not as good. The idea of having a ‘blank-slate’ protagonist is not an unusual one – Forrest Gump is probably the most famous example of its use – but it can very easily make for a sluggish pace with one misstep. Thornton, as has already been stated, does a fabulous job with Ed Crane, but what becomes apparent quite early on is that we shouldn’t really like any of these characters. Of course, the marvellous No Country uses this same ploy, but the difference is that we end up rooting for Josh Brolin’s Llewellyn Moss despite our better judgment. In The Man, a feeling of disconnection permeates many scenes, the piercing silence of Crane’s impassivity bordering on boring at times, and despite some stellar turns from other cast members, no-one really does anything to make us empathise with them. Shaloub’s lawyer is a snake, Doris is quietly racist, Big Dave is disloyal and fraudulent, and Ed quite literally does nothing. Only Birdie Abundus, played by a young but impressive Scarlett Johansson, has a chance of getting our sympathy, but she’s never given quite enough time to grab our attention.
There are quite a few moments in The Man Who Wasn’t There where the Coens’ intention is crystallised in brilliant scenes, but unfortunately the whole thing ends up feeling a bit uneven as it moves between acts: for example, a mid-movie scene at a wedding is pretty transparently a piece of plot exposition whose importance is quite minimal anyway. It’s a shame because the idea is very intriguing, and the film is still a lot better than most you’ll see. Yet we never quite get the film we wanted.
Verdict: If the Coens were authors, this would be placed in the ‘minor work’ category. At times very interesting, but at others infuriating, The Man Who Wasn’t There can’t stand with the best of the Coens, but it’s still a worthwhile picture. Full of ideas and moments of charm, it’s a good movie, but can’t quite live up to its own promise, even though the ending is quite superb. Engaging, but slightly too uneven to leave a lasting impact.