Notable Festivals: Cannes (Best Director), Edinburgh, San Sebastian
The success of O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? propelled the Coen Brothers into the hearts of Middle America, broadening their fanbase considerably. So how did they capitalize on this large, captive audience? By making a small, black-and-white murder noir that would alienate those heartland sensibilities entirely. But such is life with the Coens– their body of work is an exercise in contradictions and winking in-jokes made at the audience’s expense. Initially inspired by a prop poster of 1940’s haircuts on the set of THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, Joel and Ethan expanded the idea into an acutely sardonic meditation on mid-century American values and suburban malaise titled THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE. Their ninth feature finds the celebrated filmmaking partners consolidating their tragicomic strengths while further exploring a highly-stylized visual aesthetic, making another postmodern bid to recontextualize the iconography of the past for contemporary storytelling tastes.
Billy Bob Thornton makes the most of one of his rare leading turns as the laconic, calculating barber at the center of the story, Ed Crane. He narrates the film with a disaffected, almost-clinical temperament that highlights the Coens’ morbid sense of humor. Joel Coen’s real-life wife and frequent leading lady, Frances McDormand, turns in a memorable performance as Crane’s unfaithful spouse, Doris. It’s a much more unsavory role for McDormand, and it’s a testament to her diverse range that she can effortlessly transition to the other side of the bars after her last performance in FARGO as the kindly police officer, Marge Gunderson. As the philandering department store owner, Big Dave Brewster, James Gandolfini simultaneously eschews his tough-guy Tony Soprano persona while subtly embracing it. He’s the alpha male, the biggest figure in his small town. Every noir needs the arrogant sucker character, and Big Dave fills that role in unexpected ways. Longtime Coen mainstay Jon Polito has a substantial role here as Creighton Tulliver, a street-smart huckster with an ill-fitting suit and a worse-fitting toupee. Polito throws his considerable weight around in his energetic performance of a shady get-rich-quick schemer who regards dry-cleaning technology as the second coming of Christ.
The film’s supporting cast boasts several famous faces who have already made or are making the first of several appearances in the Coens’ filmography. Scarlett Johansson, looking almost child-like in one of her earliest roles, plays Birdy Abundas, an inquisitive young girl with a talent for music and a hidden sexuality beyond her years. Her innocence here contrasts quite dramatically with the character she’d play fifteen years later in 2016’s HAIL, CAESAR!. Well-respected character actor Richard Jenkins also delivers his first performance for the Coens as Birdy’s bookish father, Walter. He shares an easy friendship with Crane, although he’s blind to his friend’s burgeoning inclinations towards his daughter. Tony Shalhoub, in his second Coen outing since BARTON FINK ten years earlier, steals the show as Sacramento’s quote/unquoted “best” lawyer, Freddy Riedenschneider. His character sucks all the air out of the room with a rapid-fire verbosity, which counters rather neatly with Crane’s silent brooding. Finally Michael Badalucco, who played Pretty Boy Floyd in O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? appears again here as Crane’s portly brother in law and fellow barber, Frank. All in all, the performances are perfectly serviceable and believable, if not particularly memorable.
The Coens’ regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins, earned his second consecutive Oscar nomination for his work on THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE. While O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? fully embraced the freedoms of digital intermediate technology, this time the Coens turned to conventional laboratory processing techniques to achieve their highly stylized look. The 35mm film stock was shot in color, but printed in stark black and white to achieve the evocative silver screen look we associate with classic film noir. His lighting setup complements this old-fashioned approach, favoring a moody, high-contrast aesthetic. Black and white film represents a kind of purity when it comes to exposure, because when a cinematographer doesn’t have to deal with traditional chroma concerns, he or she is free to literally paint with pure light. Deakins knows this well, and artfully uses light and shadow to distinguish the various gradations of grey for a compelling look. THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE seems like a film out of its time, because it is– the Coens and Deakins limited themselves to the common filmmaking techniques of Hollywood’s Golden Age: the stylized silhouettes of the noir genre, the 1.85:1 Academy aspect ratio, and classical dolly-based camera movement. The Coens and Deakins have crafted a nightmare of a Norman Rockwell painting, fleshed out by returning production designer Dennis Gassner’s authentic period designs. This sense of melancholy timelessness extends to an appropriately classical bed of music characterized predominantly by piano and the violin. The Coens supplement longtime composer Carter Burwell’s nostalgic, bittersweet score with sourced opera tracks and various Beethoven compositions like “Moonlight Sonata” to imbue their portrait of suburban malaise with a classical universality.
While the Coens go to great lengths to meticulously recreate the cinematic conventions of Eisenhower-era Hollywood, their signature thematic conceits infuse THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE with a decidedly modern sensibility. The detached, hard-boiled voiceover is a defining characteristic of the noir genre– a trope that the Coens subvert with their sardonic comic worldview, which is able to see humor in our darkest moments thanks to a degree 0f psychological remove from the immediate actions onscreen. This outside perspective fundamentally informs every aspect of THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, right down to the title. Like so many Coen protagonists, Ed Crane is a man at odds against his own environment. He’s set apart from the flow of life around him, giving him an elevated perspective that makes clear the idea that the trappings of modern life are ultimately a distraction. He nihilistically sits back and watches the ceaseless parade of mid-century Americana and small-town culture: images of barbershops, churches, department stores, pulp magazines, and even flying saucers serve as diversionary constructs that distract the characters from the fact that one day this will all come to an end. Even Crane’s narration is ultimately revealed to be meaningless, the product of a writing prompt for a men’s magazine he performs while on death row, paid by the word with money that he’ll never actually get to use. This isn’t to say that the film itself is nihilistic– indeed, as he sits on the electric chair his narration expresses hope that he’ll be reunited with Doris in the afterlife. It’s only another layer upon multitudes of contradictory sentiments that reinforce the Coens’ love of confounding anyone who tries to take their films too seriously.
THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE met with modest success upon its release, earning warm applause from audiences and critics alike. It earned the Best Director award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, which it shared with David Lynch’s mystifying masterwork, MULHOLLAND DRIVE. While it hasn’t gained the kind of cult following enjoyed by works like THE BIG LEBOWSKI, the quality of the Coens’ craft holds up with a sense of timelessness that ensures its longevity. Together, these two films are indicative of an industry acquainting itself with the possibilities of breakthroughs in digital technology, figuring out how to use a suite of new and exciting tools. By placing themselves at the forefront of this adoption, the Coens have made the old new again– making the past come alive in a tactile, impressionistic way that, for the most part, had never been seen before. O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? is, without a doubt, the more influential film of the two, having ushered in an age of radical color timing and abstract palettes, but THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE stands strongly on its own merits, having carved out a space for itself as another cult classic within the brothers’ filmography. Most importantly, this pair of old-fashioned works set the stage for a new act in the Coens’ career– one that would see them soar to ever-greater heights while cementing their legacy as the preeminent chroniclers of the darkly absurd.
THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE is currently available in a high definition Netflix stream, as well as standard definition DVD from Universal.