The Man Who Wasn't There is a quietly sinister film that doesn't merely imitate films noirs of the 1940s but seems to channel their essence. It's more than the moody monochrome cinematography and period costumes. It's the way the characters sort their morality in an era when evil wasn't common or celebrated.
Recent examples of film noir _ such as L.A. Confidential _ infuse the fedora drama with contemporary values, usually cynical and anti-authority. Corruption comes from the top. Yet the films they mimic in style possessed a more naive spirit, before politicians lied and murderers taunted. The worst things anyone could do in 1940s film noir were to lie or enjoy killing. The Man Who Wasn't There recalls the genre and resurrects that personally moral spirit.
Nobody seems more upright than Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber so bland that he can drain the candy colors from the pole outside his shop. Ed doesn't talk much except in pulp-dread narration, from a perspective that won't be clear until the fade-out. The droll humor in the lines, of which Ed isn't aware, is the mark of Joel and Ethan Coen, the filmmakers who put Fargo on the map.
The Coen brothers _ Joel directs and co-writes with Ethan _ love Golden Age movies, evidenced by their forays into screwball comedy (The Hudsucker Proxy), mob melodramas (Miller's Crossing) and Preston Sturges salutes (O Brother, Where Art Thou?). Each film was sly about the era in which it was made. Each would fit nicely into 1940s theaters with just enough weirdness to make those audiences scratch their heads.
The Man Who Wasn't There comes from the Double Indemnity old school. Normal lives are disrupted by sex, then lies, then murder. Who does what isn't as important as how they feel about it. Ed feels worst of all but, as usual, can't express it, leading himself and others into tighter spots.
Ed's wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), is carrying on with her boss, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), a war veteran well-versed in what Ed calls "he-man stuff." Ed knows it but says nothing. That is, until a huckster (Jon Polito) with a new idea called dry cleaning comes looking for an investor. The barber decides to extort $10,000 from Big Dave and perhaps change his sterile life.
Things go wrong, very wrong, and Ed remains mute about it except in his audience confessions. The Coens delight in sending this too-safe man into more dangerous situations with the police, a jailbait pianist (Scarlett Johansson) and, most of all, his conscience. The landscape is populated with the brothers' typically colorful characters _ Tony Shalhoub's smoke-and-mirrors defense attorney is a standout _ crossing paths at precisely the wrong times for Ed.
Thornton's performance is something to see, magnetic even though he isn't doing much at all. Ed's face rarely changes expression, and his voice, when it's used, is eerily sedate. Tom Hanks earned praise for acting alone in Cast Away, but Thornton acts alone even in a crowd of people. Calling him understated is an understatement.
The Coens made their film too long (again), extending takes and repeating riffs simply because they're still amused by them, the kind of mistakes that afterthought makes inconsequential and even vital to the vibe. It's that kind of stillness and sameness that made Ed the man he is, neither here nor there.
The Man Who Wasn't There
Director: Joel Coen
Cast: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Tony Shalhoub, Scarlett Johansson, Michael Badalucco, Jon Polito
Screenplay: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Rating: R; profanity, violence, sexual situations
Running time: 116 min.