The Man Who Wasn't There Review
The work of the brothers Coen tends to divide itself into two separate categories, only linked by the brothers’ interest in the macabre and the offbeat. The first are the ‘serious’ films, which consist of such modern classics as Miller’s Crossing and Fargo; although there are frequent and bizarre moments of humour throughout these, they nevertheless tend to be based around dark and often quasi-tragic events, as well as often paying homage to the work of such film noir writers as James M Cain and Dashiell Hammett. The second are the more straightforwardly knockabout comic, such as Raising Arizona and The Big Lebowski; some love these, others find them overblown and deeply lacking in human sympathy. Such a charge might, conceivably, be made against The Man Who Wasn’t There, with its monosyllabic anti-hero, generally unsympathetic characters, doom-laden plot and bleakly beautiful black-and-white cinematography. The more literally inclined will dislike it immensely, preferring the more mainstream pleasures of O Brother, Where Art Thou?; however, anyone who has ever experienced such noir classics as Double Indemnity or The Big Sleep will find plenty here to enjoy.
The plot concerns laconic barber Ed Crane (Thornton), his unfaithful wife Doris (McDormand), who married him because, as Crane explains, ‘She liked that I didn’t talk much’, and, initially, her lover, Big Dave (Gandolfini), a would-be department store owner. When Crane meets a wig-wearing pansy named Creighton Tulliver (Polito), who has designs on the dry cleaning market, he begins to see a business opportunity forming; he will blackmail Big Dave, use the money to set himself up in partnership with Tulliver, and, presumably, live a happier and more productive life. Unfortunately, this being a dark and miserable study of the human condition, Crane’s plans are plagued by murder, deceit and his possible infatuation for the Lolita-esque daughter of a friend of his, Birdy (Johansson). If it was wacky farce you were after, stick to Raising Arizona.
The film is remarkably accomplished on many levels, but perhaps the most noticeable success is the cinematography. Normally, it’s a cliché that the viewer should not notice such technical aspects of the film as the photography and the score, but Roger Deakins’ extraordinary work here looks absolutely stunning throughout, managing the nigh-on impossible task of making the film look authentically 50s in period, but not simply a pastiche of earlier works. Of course, all the technical skill in the world can’t (entirely) redeem a weak script, so it’s an equal pleasure that the writing here is as strong as anything in such classic tales of double-dealing and murder as The Third Man, although the laconic, dryly witty voiceover here often feels more like a parody of the traditional, cliched ‘Well, all the painted broads in this goddamn stinking city couldn’t make me any sicker’ type of ludicrously hard-bitten narration.
The film’s other great achievement is not only making a potentially tiresome plot fresh, but in the sheer surreal brio that the Coens bring to some of the more off-kilter details in the film. Obviously, Creighton Tulliver- the archetypal ‘fat man shouting’, a figure who appears in many Coen brothers films- is a wonderful comic creation in the Sydney Greenstreet tradition, but there is a wonderfully strange subplot about UFOs that both acts as offbeat comic relief, and also slyly comments on the contrast between the humdrum, earthbound existence, rather than life, led by Crane, and the altogether more exciting possibilities offered by the possible visitors from another planet, an ongoing theme wittily hinted at by the visual jokes scattered around the film. It goes without saying that this is as drenched in intelligence and irony as any of their other films, and a constant pleasure simply to observe this strange world, which is half Frank Capra, half David Lynch, and altogether unique.
The performances are all excellent; although Thornton’s still, almost silent performance is somewhat love-it-or-hate-it in its effect, there is no denying that it represents this fine actor at the height of his considerable talents, and is a welcome reminder that there is considerably more to him than playing the comic relief in such mainstream pap as Bandits. McDormand and Gandolfini are fine, rather than exceptional, in more straightforward roles, but the film is all but stolen by Tony Shalhoub as the flamboyant lawyer employed on behalf of various characters; the baroque, stylised mannerisms adopted by him throughout might feel overblown in a more ‘realistic’ film, but they work perfectly here, complementing the film’s sense of being one step away from reality at all times. The soundtrack by the Coens’ regular composer Carter Burwell is also rather wonderful, combining pieces of Beethoven piano sonatas with original music to great effect. The bottom line, then, is that this is unlikely to appeal to a mass general audience, but, on the other hand, no film by the Coens is ever likely to become a blockbuster (although the upcoming George Clooney/ Catherine Zeta Jones farce Intolerable Cruelty, a homage to Preston Sturges, might change that), and those of a discerning nature will find plenty to enjoy in a finely wrought and superbly executed meditation on murder, humanity, and- as one would expect- hairdressing!
While films like Citizen Kane have (rightly) been praised for their superb presentation on DVD, with the cinematography coming in for special mention, there is also the undeniable fact that, given that most black and white films were filmed in the standard Academy ratio of 1.33:1, few can really be seen with the full benefits of anamorphic enhancement. However, USA have presented the film superbly, in what might be called ‘luminous’ black and white; Deakins’ cinematography actually looks better on DVD than it might well have done in the average cinema, and, barring a few very minor spots of smearing towards the start, this is a constant pleasure to watch, and a fine presentation of the film (which, incidentally, would lose a vast amount were the technical presentation to be sub-par, so avoid any cheap R3 imports, which might well only be non-anamorphic or 4:3!).
The Sound A 5.1 soundtrack is provided here, and, given the largely dialogue-based nature of the film, is not required to do than provide very occasional use of the surrounds, and then for cosmetic purposes rather than anything else. However, what really counts in a film like this is for the music and dialogue to be presented with as much clarity as possible, and both are showcased extremely well at all times, making this a fine soundtrack to the film.
Given that the Coens’ attitude towards DVD extras has either been to ignore them altogether or, in the case of Blood Simple, to provide the first spoof audio commentary, it comes as something of a surprise to see that, on paper, this represents the film’s first bona fide (sic) special edition. However, as so often, what looks good on the back of the box does not necessarily translate into interesting, or, indeed, well-produced special features. The one unqualified success is the commentary, which features the brothers Coen- for the first time- and Billy Bob Thornton. It’s a far more conventional track than you might expect, at times verging close to Kevin Smith territory as they gleefully ridicule Ed Crane, but still very entertaining stuff, and let’s hope that their other films get similar treatment.
Unfortunately, everything else on the DVD is disappointing in some way. The making-of featurette is about ten minutes of EPK interviews, which are only very slightly superior to the usual ‘I play’ nonsense, followed by a few minutes of unexplained behind-the-scenes footage, and nothing else. The interview with Roger Deakins sounds very promising on paper, but is spoilt by being appallingly edited and photographed, with a very irritating interviewer asking badly recorded questions, as well as being rather overstretched at 45 minutes; perhaps the information would have been better conveyed over the course of a commentary track, which, although obviously longer, would at least have been scene-specific. The other extras are an unremarkable stills gallery, the unexciting theatrical trailer, a couple of bizarre TV spots which obviously show that the publicists didn’t have a clue who to market the film to, and some frankly pointless ‘deleted scenes’, which consist of Tony Shalhoub’s speech to the jury without voiceover, three ‘deleted hairstyles’, and a final clip entitled ‘Doris’ salad’, which is fairly self-explanatory, without being at all interesting. Overall, then, rather a disappointing set of extras, which leave several potentially fascinating topics unexplored.
The brothers Coen have made yet another intelligent, witty and consistently interesting exercise in stretching genres that is all but guaranteed to split audiences; however, those who long for something rather more rewarding than the usual Hollywood pap will not be disappointed. USA present the film on a technically strong disc (almost identical to the Region 2 version), with decidedly mixed extras; the chances of the film being revisited in the future look slim, unfortunately, so this looks like the best available at the moment, and is recommended on that basis alone.