The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

D: Joel Coen
S: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand

Elegant but vacant noir rehash from the Coen brothers, who have been over this ground before (Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing). It looks beautiful and features a strong (if one-note) performance from Billy Bob Thornton, but visual pleasures only carry it so far. After an enthralling first act it becomes increasingly pointless. What initially seems ripe with promise and intricacy eventually seems bloated by irrelevance. Its observations become alternately abstract and trite and the film trails off into an idle cinematic doodle. It is all very amusing if you treat it as a feature-length in-joke (film gris anyone?), but it is neither a compelling drama nor a gripping thriller when it was striving to be both while also, inevitably, representing the unique (and admittedly playful) sensibilities of its talented writing and directing team (O Brother, Where Art Thou?).

The plot concerns the adventures of a 1940s barber (Thornton) whose anonymous and unassuming manner carries him through life with barely a glance from the outside world. It is only when he attempts to play an active role in affairs that he comes into conflict with fate's great plan and so becomes its victim. First up is the matter of his unfaithful wife (Frances McDormand) and her brutish lover (James Gandolfini), a situation which becomes increasingly complex as a series of eccentric supporting characters are drawn into it, along with murder, blackmail, and general duplicity. Not only is there quirky salesman pitching a futuristic business idea known as 'dry cleaning', but there's Gandolfini's strange wife who is obsessed with UFOs, a blustering attorney who is more interested in making a spellbinding story out of a murder case than he is in the facts, and a beautiful young girl who may or may not be a musical prodigy in whose life Thornton may be taking an undue (and unwholesome?) interest.

The Coens have a proven talent for creating distinctive imaginary landscapes and populating them with goofy, off-centre characters whose stories sometimes have resonance and other times are just plain fun. The Man Who Wasn't There is every bit as much a Coen brothers' film as the critically lauded Fargo or the agreeably eccentric The Big Lebowski. Its balance is different though. Where Fargo managed to dip in and out of affecting moralism, and The Big Lebowski was relaxingly loose, The Man Who Wasn't There takes itself too seriously on one level and not seriously enough on another. It is as much in love with its irrelevancies as with the potential of the story to actually say something about how human beings see (or don't see) one another. It trails off once too often, until it eventually seems to completely lose touch with itself, or, arguably, becomes so self-involved that it forgets the audience is there and wanders away into abstraction.

The film is organised around themes and metaphors of visibility. It is a story of the periphery and the centre, a tale of how the 'ordinary' can be 'extraordinary' depending on your point of view. This 'man who wasn't there' is, of course, very much there, not just insofar as he is a human being with thoughts and emotions, but because he is the focus of our story. This is yet another of the Coens' in-jokes, and one which serves its purpose adequately enough. The problem is that the tale which they spin from this situation is one of equally monumental insignificance by the time it reaches its long-delayed resolution. His tale, in spite of the textbook ever-increasing stakes, remains an anecdote rather than a parable, and though Thornton seems to move closer to the centre of the universe, he remains as invisible as ever. It is the tale of a man who remains invisible in the larger sense insofar as his life story adds up to nothing more than an extended gag about identity and anonymity.

This paradox is deliberate, and it is reinforced visually by the lighting, cinematography, and costume design. Thornton is given the demeanour and appearance of a ghost from the outset. He is almost an absence, a grey shape in low-contrast settings which give the world the appearance of an ashen, ghostly limbo rather than the more traditional expressionistic black and white of the original noirs. The audience is therefore invited to perceive the character in terms of this world, which is somehow less interesting than it should be. There are some high-contrast scenes, (and scenes of violence and conflict) but they are generally played for laughs of some kind. Take for example the scene where attorney Tony Shaloub strides in and out of spots of light in an interrogation chamber, or where Thornton lies on a prison bed and dreams of an encounter with a UFO. This is not a world of shadowy morality, it is one in which destiny and consequence have become matters of whimsy: an amoral postmodern space filled to the brim with deliberate derivations which have no meaning in themselves.

The Coens seem not so much interested in the meaning of the patterns of light they have wrought as just how many of them they can come up with to illustrate the story, such as it is. It is as much a graphic novel as a film, composed of a series of striking scenes and visual ideas which form a backdrop to a pulp fiction plot which may or may not have depths which remain unplumbed. Roger Deakins' sparkling cinematography and the extremely clever lighting design give them a black and white palette as enviable as the digital colour one used in O Brother, Where Art Thou? But they have used it to paint a canvas which really is more 'ordinary' than is good for it in spite of enough Coenesque weirdness to suggest there's more to it than that.

Even at their least coherent (The Hudsucker Proxy), the Coens are usually worth watching. There are details and stylistic elements to admire in this film, and it does hold attention for at least one third of its running time. The film loses its way though, at least insofar as we can make that determination as the audience for whom it is intended. Perhaps somewhere in its nexus of meandering metaphors there is a kernel of human truth upon which Joel and Ethan sought to pass comment, but we are not invited to find it in a way which stimulates our desire for it. An enigma is not just about resolution, of course, and there are pleasures in studying a puzzle for the beauty of its design, but there is very little satisfaction to be derived from the complete picture here, so it is hardly worth the effort.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2002.