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The Man Who Wasn't There

The Coen Brothers throw a Curveball

Ed Crane "doesn't talk too much, he just cuts the hair." In one simple remark, Ed Crane has set the tempo for brothers Joel and Ethan Coen's new film The Man Who Wasn't There, a somber tale of a man whose reluctance to partake in the expansion era world of the late nineteen-forties causes him to be overlooked by society and marginalized to a second chair barber post in his brother-in-law's barber shop.

Ed (Billy Bob Thorton) doesn't have the gift of gab the way his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco) does, and has no problem that his wife Doris' (Frances McDormand) overbearing obnoxious boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini) sits at the head of his own table. Ed is a passive recluse who resigns himself to cutting hair and smoking cigarettes. His aloofness breeds a similar aloofness in others. So it's no surprise to find that Ed's customers always speak much more than Frank's, which leads to an encounter with Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), an entrepreneur, who has a proposition that will propel Ed into a series of unintentional events.

Ed narrates the entire film, which is surprising considering he utters maybe fifty words on screen, and for what it's worth, his narration is the only proactive thing he does. Unfortunately he's being paid a nickel a word to do it. What is lost in on screen dialogue, Thorton makes up for in his physical presence on screen. There is no bounce or gait to his walk, only the flat-footed step that, as his wife continually reminds him, kept him out of the service.

The subtle beauty of The Man Who Wasn't There lies far from the catch phrases we've come to expect from a Coen brothers film. Although the film is riddled with slow and intentional dialogue, there are moments of pure silence that resonate the scenes' emotions much more effectively. Director of photography Roger Deakins avoided the use of direct lighting, opting instead for fewer, larger light sources. The resulting atmosfere presents figures and objects onscreen with a certain fullness of dimension. The results are staggering as one watches lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) weave in and out of the shadows in a jail cell while making up a story. Throughout much of the film it is the lighting, not the dialogue, that holds the scenes in balance.

The Man Who Wasn't There is at once a return to the noir genre found in the Coen brother's earlier films Blood Simple and Fargo and also a departure. Ed, unlike his earlier film counterparts, is a man caught in someone else's narrative, and when he takes the initiative to be what his lawyer calls the 'modern man,' he unwittingly unleashes the Heisenberg uncertainty principle that one can not know the momentum of ones actions. The consequences prove to be fatal. As his lawyer says himself: The more you look, the less you know.

The Man Who Wasn't There
Rated R
1 hour 56 minutes

Billy Bob Thornton
Frances McDormand
James Gandolfini
Scarlett Johansson
Katherine Borowitz
Tony Shalhoub