With their first two films, Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, Joel and Ethan Coen established what would become a guiding principle of their careers: their next film will be very different from their last. Now that the Coens have been making movies for over thirty years, this pattern has become more discernible, but for the first half of their careers, this dynamic tended to stymie audiences. People who enjoyed the nuanced ambience and crime narrative of the last film felt put off by the light-hearted silliness, slapstick, and absurdity of the next one. Of course, given enough time and the handful of breakout box-office successes in the Coens’ body of work, this dynamic has easily shifted by disappointing fans of their offbeat comedies with seemingly impenetrable works of moody soul-searching. O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a quasi-musical road-trip farce based on The Odyssey by Homer and set in the Depression-era South remains among the Coens’ most bizarre concepts, so it stands to reason that their next film would return to more familiar turf. Beyond the ever-changing look and tone of the Coens’ films, they have established a consistent focus on what happens when people break laws in attempts to better their individual stations in life. Arriving within a year of the highly successful, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There revisits the theme of upwardly mobile crime in a deceptively stylish manner that exhibits the Coens’ strengths in storytelling and celebrates the love they have for telling stories, as well.
A calm, slow grace accompanies The Man Who Wasn’t There from start to finish. The quick, episodic pace of the 1930’s South of O Brother, Where Art Thou? has been exchanged for a sedate, focused stride through an unremarkable Southern California town in the 1950’s. Sepia tone gives way to a rich and textured Black and White. After their first two films, the Coens quickly began adding “period pieces” to the their repertoire, but this is their first use of Black and White. This conscious choice of a more date-appropriate film style enables the Coens to further luxuriate in the details of the era including a quick visual guide to the popular haircuts of the day, the elaborate and ornate sets of a local department store central to the plot, and an afternoon spent at a distant relative’s countryside wedding. The Coens proceed to lampoon this regard for the specifics with repeated scenes among the characters that directly convey that no one is really paying attention to anything. Tony Shalhoub’s character, the hotshot, A-list lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider, bases an entire legal defense on Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle but not once manages to get the name of the scientist right. Playing the central role of “The Barber” Ed Crane, Billy Bob Thornton delivers a wonderful, two-fold performance through his subdued yet gripping screen presence combined with his narration throughout the film that highlights the Coens’ knack for beautifully composed, but absurdly mundane writing. Constructing a film around a taciturn main character who shares limited dialog with other characters on screen but supplies deliciously detailed commentary throughout the film stands as one of the Coens’ best jokes.
The Man Who Wasn’t There sits squarely at a midpoint in the Coens’ body of work between the depth and intensity of Fargo and No Country for Old Men and the manic levity of Raising Arizona and Burn After Reading. Yet another playful homage to Film Noir like The Big Lebowski, this film not only rewards repeated viewings, but also demonstrates the Coen Brothers’ greatest skill as filmmakers: the ability to inject the fairly commonplace plots of genre films with levels of keen observation, perversity, and playfulness that allow their films to become transcendent. The Coens always collect great ensemble casts and, with regulars like Frances McDormand and Jon Polito alongside character actors like Richard Jenkins as well as actors better known for their TV work like James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) and Tony Shalhoub (Wings, Monk), this film is no different. Also, it is worth noting that this is one of Scarlett Johansson’s first significant roles, arriving the same year as Ghost World, but a full two years before her breakout performance in Lost in Translation. Simply put: The Man Who Wasn’t There holds up because the writing is fantastic, it looks great, and the actors appear to be having fun while turning in memorable performances. Perhaps, the unexpected success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? overshadowed this film upon its release, but time has been far kinder to this film than its direct predecessor. Next time you find yourself craving a Coen Brothers’ film cue this one up and you won’t be disappointed.
- John Parsell