The Coen brothers (“Fargo,” “Raising Arizona,” “O Brother Where Art Thou”) are known for flamboyant, even grotesque, images and outlandish dialogue. They also have a deep appreciation for film history, and many of their past films have been tributes to the 1930’s and 40’s genres. With “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” they return to the inspiration for their first film, “Blood Simple,” the films noir of the 1930’s and 1940’s. With this film, a clear nod to the movies based on James M. Cain novels like “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” they go further than they have before in submersing themselves into the genre, with little of their usual ironic distance.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, a man who thinks of himself simply as “The Barber.” He is responsible for the second chair in a barbershop owned by his wife’s brother. He is not particularly happy with his life in a small California town called Santa Rosa, but that does not bother him too much. He does not expect happiness, and even if he did, he would not expect himself to be able to take any steps to find it. He does what he is told, not because he is meek or submissive, but because it never occurs to him that he has a choice. If he takes some quiet satisfaction in the ignorance of those around him of the cynicism of his internal running commentary, that is as far as his rebellion goes.
Ed believes that his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), is having an affair with her affable boss, “Big Dave” Brewster (James Gandolfini). Ed is not jealous or angry. He has no particular feeling about it (or about anything else). But then he meets Creighton Tolliver (Joe Polito) who tells him that for only $10,000, Ed can invest in a new invention so strange and wonderful it would just have to make a man wealthy – “dry cleaning.”
Ed decides to blackmail Big Dave to get the money. But things go wrong, two people are murdered, and the wrong person is arrested. A pretty teenager who plays the piano makes Ed think about the world outside of Santa Rosa.
Part of the code of the films noir was that evil could not triumph. This was a literal code, the Hayes Code, which governed the content of Hollywood films until adoption of the MPAA rating system. But it also worked well for those dark films, providing morality tales for uncertain times. These times may be just as uncertain, but audience expectations have changed. This movie is so traditional in structure, tone, language (mild by today’s standards), and content (with the exception of one jolting moment in a car) that it might bewilder viewers not familiar enough with the genre to recognize that some of the names in the movie are taken from noir classics like “Double Indemnity” and Gandolfini’s performance seems to channel the brilliant, underrated 1940’s actor, Paul Douglas.
They will, however, appreciate outstanding performances from the entire cast, especially Tony Shaloub as Califonia’s leading criminal defense lawyer. Like all Coen brothers films, it is filled with stunning images, this time brilliantly filmed in black and white.
Parents should know that the movie’s themes include adultery, blackmail, murder, and the death penalty. There is a very violent struggle and a character is killed. Another dead body is briefly visible. A character commits suicide and characters are injured in car accident (off-screen). An adult has some unfocused fantasies about an intimate relationship with a teenager. Characters drink and smoke (Ed smokes constantly).
Families who see this movie should talk about how it compares to the movies that it salutes, and about whether audiences have changed. Why was Ed so passive? What else could/should he have done?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “They Won’t Believe Me” and “Double Indemnity.”