USA 2001
director : Joel Coen
script : Joel & Ethan Coen
producers include : Ethan Coen
cinematography : Roger Deakins
editing : Roderick Jaynes (i.e. Joel & Ethan Coen), Tricia Cooke
music : Carter Burwell
lead actors : Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Tony Shalhoub
also : Scarlett Johansson, Michael Badalucco, John Polito, Adam Alexi-Malle
115 minutes

America, the early fifties: taciturn small-town barber Ed Crane (Thornton) suspects his wife (McDormand) of having an affair with her boss (Gandolfini). This proves to be only the start of his troubles… From every technical angle, the Coens’ version of film noir is flawless: impeccably lit, costumed, cast, acted and, above all, shot—Roger Deakins’ sensational black-and-white cinematography is easily worth the price of admission on its own, and bears comparison with noir’s original shadow-master, John Alton.

But, as often in the past, the brilliance of the Coens’ collaborators can’t compensate for the brothers’ own shortcomings in the script department. It’s as if they sat down with some period newspapers, cut out some stories and adverts and cobbled them together into something they hoped would pass for a coherent narrative. The absurdities pile up right from the off: the thing that sparks Ed’s decline is his need for cash to buy into a hare-brained dry-cleaning scam; his wife’s infidelity is, at best, secondary. Theirs is a loveless, sexless union—so loveless, in fact, one suspects Ed is going to bump her off, rather than suddenly undergo a transformation, half-way through, into a noble, self-sacrificing husband. And no matter how pin-sharp Deakins’ images, Mrs Crane never really comes into focus. How many of the film’s many vocal admirers can even recall her first name? Could it be Marion?

Ed’s abrupt changes of character are, of course, just mechanisms by which the Coens can bring in fast-talking larger-than-life characters played by Polito and Shalhoub. The Coens clearly love writing this pair’s rat-a-tat patter dialogue which rely on style, not content, to convey impressions. Because this is, of course, their own cinematic language: they acknowledge as much by including a scene where a piano teacher criticises a pupil (Ghost World‘s terrific, versatile Johansson) for being all technique and no meaning, no heart. It’s an unconvincing, too-late attempt at a smart-ass get-out: The Man Who Wasn’t There has by this point degenerated into a series of arbitrary convolutions that make less and less sense.

Near the end, there’s an especially desperate detour into incongruous crassness involving Thornton, Johansson and a bit of in-car fellatio that emphasises just how far the Coens have fallen since their gloriously controlled, modulated 1984 debut Blood Simple. That movie, despite being made in pulsating colour, subtly captured the exact spirit of its sources, the very noirish worlds of writers James M Cain and Jim Thompson. It must have been a glorious fluke: The Man Who Wasn’t There suggests the Coens saw five minutes of some forties thriller on TV one night and thought it might be a lark to knock out one of their own. Of noir’s style, it is a great pastiche. Of its substance, a great travesty.

Neil Young

7th January, 2002
(seen Oct-17-01, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)