The Man Who Wasn't There Review

The Coen Brothers are fascinating because of their extreme fascination for genre pieces. After Fargo gave them their breakthrough success, The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou? endeared them to the hearts of wider audiences with their loveable protagonists. Now however, Joel and Ethan return to blacker material and a setting of the late forties in The Man Who Wasn't There.

1949. Santa Rosa, North California. Protagonist and narrator Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is the secondary barber in a brother-in-law's haircutting business, and continually struggles to generate any enthusiasm about his life. Here, after all, is a man who claims he isn't big on parties or entertaining. To make matters worse, Ed seems to be indifferent regarding the idea that his wife Doris (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss 'Big Dave' Brewster (James Gandolfini). One day, whilst cutting a customer's hair, the customer Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), a sleazy businessman, moans to Ed about how he needs ten grand to finance his revolutionary idea known as 'dry cleaning'. Tolliver has obviously ranted this sales pitch all over town, and obviously doesn't actually believe that Ed will be interested in his scheme, but Ed thinks otherwise. Maybe it's a chance to start his life again, or maybe it's just because he is simply bored, but Ed decides to invest in Tolliver's ambitions, except he lacks the finances. Therefore, Ed sends an anonymous blackmailing letter to Big Dave over his affair, claiming that he'll ruin his reputation unless he pays the required ten grand. However, Ed is slowly sucked into a twisted, often comical world in which nothing is what it seems, in true Coen Brothers style.

The Man Who Wasn't There is the sort of film (and similar to all of the Coen's films) that grows on you in hindsight. On first viewing, you feel constantly on your guard, as if scared you'll miss an in-joke or subtle plot reference, and yet after watching it you'll immediately want to re-watch it just to check out its style, now that you are fully aware of the plot. This is primarily because Joel and Ethan are often more concerned with their presentation of the film as opposed to its content. The dialogue is pure Coen Brothers, and they clearly delight at the creation of Ed Crane, a character so minimalist he almost encapsulates the end of the Truman administration and the emergence of the zombie-like nineteen fifties USA under Eisenhower. Billy Bob Thornton makes Ed Crane charismatic despite the character's wooden exterior, and his facial profiles seem straight out of nineteen fifties' comic books. Thornton gives a thankless job as Ed Crane, as he is asked to be continually upstaged by the more 'colourful' supporting characters, and yet his performance is what helps the film to achieve the status of a B-movie classic. Coens regular Frances McDormand (also the wife of Joel) provides interesting support as Doris, the women sexually unfulfilled by Ed, but Jon Polito, as the sleazy salesman Tolliver, and Tony Shalhoub, as obnoxious and quick-witted lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider, provide the most impressive performances. Scarlett Johansson (who stared opposite Thora Birch in Ghost World) shows her acting maturity with a fine Lolita-esque performance of 'Birdy' Abundas, a character who slowly becomes the object of Ed's often dormant affections. The Sopranos' own James Gandolfini suggests that he can hold his own in both television and cinema as Big Dave, the greedy adulterous slimeball who has charmed Ed's wife, and this a feat often unaccomplished by many actors.

Joel and Ethan direct with a style that is obviously paying homage to the fifties B-movie noirs that were once commonplace in Hollywood. The use of black-and-white photography by Roger Deakins is the first clue, and Deakins employs such a fantastic, edgy yet luminous look to the film that it seems a crime that he has yet to win an Oscar for his efforts. The Coens seem aggressively drawn to the world of infedilty, UFOs, murder and twisted black comedy, and The Man Who Wasn't There is essentially a revisionist film attempting to contain as many codes and convention of the B-movie genre as the Coens can throw at it.

The problem many have with the film is its pacing, and its overlong running time. It's easy to see how many viewers, particularly those new to the quirky Coens style, find themselves emotionally kept at arm's length from the film. Because Ed Crane is so passive, it becomes difficult for the audience to donate their sentiments to him, and because he is the narrator of the film, it often feels as if Ed is unable to push the film past second gear. This if of course, all deliberate on the part of the Coen brothers, since they are clearly amused at the fact that Ed Crane is the anti-hero of the entire movie and have therefore played it out from his point of view.

Rather than have multi-Grammy winning soundtracks in the spirit of Lebowski or O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Coens once again subvert predictable notions by combining the works of Beethoven with the original score of Carter Burwell, and this gives the film a suitably dazed, often tranquil 'Ed Crane'-like musical overtone.

The Man Who Wasn't There is certainly not Joel and Ethan's best film, but it is another example of how they continue to make the films they want to make, regardless of whether Hollywood mainstream audiences are willing to embrace them or not. The Man Who Wasn't There is the atypical genre revisionist B-movie packed with tremendous amounts of quirky charm, and provides more for the viewer with each viewing, which has always been the Coens' greatest skill.

Academy Awards 2001

Academy Award Nominations 2001
Best Cinematography - Roger Deakins

Presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen, the picture transfer is generally very pleasing indeed with sharp, contrasting tones and beautiful, luminous black-and-white photography. There is a very tiny amount of artefacts present, but these can only be detected if one is actually looking for them in the first place, but on the whole the transfer if very good and identical to the Region 1 version.

Presented in both a 5.1 surround and a 2.0 mix, the sound track is exceptionally abundant with clarity and full of tiny background noises that fully complement the film. The musical soundtrack is given excellent spatial channelling and the rear channels are occasionally used for ambient sound elements, although this is essentially a dialogue driven film mostly lacking in action sequences.

Menu: A static menu comprising of stills from the film, combined with elements of the musical score.

Packaging: Although the film's Region 2 DVD distributor EIV are usually exceptional when it comes to the content of their DVD releases, they often spoil the show when it comes to the packaging. The cover artwork for their The Man Who Wasn't There release is terrible; it renders the appearance of the film's packaging a tacky 'straight to video' mess, littered with one sentence critical praise quotes and poor colour schemes. This is disappointing, as it mars a very good release from EIV that is essentially equal to the Region 1 version.


Audio Commentary By Joel & Ethan Coen & Billy Bob Thornton: This is an excellent screen-specific commentary by the Coens and Thornton, especially as it is the first commentary that the brothers have given to one of their films. The two Coens are in danger of sounding dry and boring on the commentary, but are luckily saved by Billy Bob Thornton, who keeps conversation throughout the film and often jokes and asks questions at regular intervals that the Coens delight at responding to. What is interesting is the fact that the three men spend most of the time poking fun at the film's protagonist Ed Crane, as if he is a real person.

Making 'The Man Who Wasn't There': This is essentially a cut and paste of EPK material in which the cast and crew talk to camera about their experiences of the film. It lasts for sixteen minutes, contains most of the important contributors to the film, and is interesting if presented appallingly, without any slick editing that it do clearly requires.

Interview With Cinematographer Roger Deakins: A forty six minute interview with the film's cinematographer Roger Deakins that sound potentially fantastic but is actually a terrible extra that stands as an insult to DVD extras. In fact, it's edited together so badly and presented in such an amateur way that one senses that the DVD producers have accidentally included the raw footage of the interview and left off the final, edited version. Or maybe the distributors are just throwing in quantity over quality in the hope of appeasing consumers.

Deleted Scenes: Again, this extra fails to deliver on its promise. The only real alternative sequence presented is Ridenschneider's Opening Argument sequence, which is exactly the same but loses Ed Crane's narration. Three deleted haircut sequences are shown which lasts for approximately a second each, and Doris' Salad involves Doris walking to a table and placing a salad onto it. This collection of sequences must surely be a joke on the part of the Coen brothers.

Behind The Scenes Photo Gallery: A brief collection of stills from the film, with user navigation.

Filmographies: Filmographies presented as text-on-screen of the major cast and crewmembers.

Theatrical Trailer & TV Spots: Presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1, the trailer does its best, but as usual struggles to convey the essence of the Coens' film. The two laughable TV spots included also have the same problem.


An excellent fifties study of B-movie genre conventions given a Coen Brothers polishing, The Man Who Wasn't There is rich in quirky dialogue and splendid comic invention. This Region 2 release is essentially the same as the Region 1 version, with the same picture and sound quality and the same bizarre extras, which although odd do not prevent this from becoming a must-own.

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Last updated: 31/05/2018 18:29:17

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