The Man Who Wasn’t There Review

Alexander Larman has reviewed the theatrical release of The Man who wasn’t there. A surprisingly good film from the Coen bros, which combines their usual eccentricities with a genuinely gripping plot

The latest film from the Coen brothers is another enigmatic exercise in confusing an audience, and is guaranteed to confuse as many people as it delights. However, it’s also the first film from them, other than Fargo, that actually has a heart as well as a brain; therefore, it might prove to be a more enjoyable evening out than it first appears. The plot concerns a laconic barber, Ed Crane (Thornton) whose wife (McDormand) is having an affair with a local department store owner, Big Dave (Gandolfini). His wife’s deception doesn’t bother Crane much, but he sees a business opportunity, and blackmails Big Dave. Unsurprisingly, things go horribly wrong.

Superficially, the film sounds like a film noir, even down to the beautiful black and white cinematography and the careful evocation of 1950s America, an impression reinforced by Crane’s voiceover, a classic noir device. However, the film that ‘The Man…’ resembles most is the overrated American Beauty, in its depiction of a fundamentally decent man who is caught in circumstances over which he has no control. Crane is an Everyman figure, much as Lester Burnham was, but he has no glib comebacks to insults, no witty repartee to make him likeable; instead, Thornton’s superb performance allows us to empathise with Crane by understanding what he hopes for, and the stifling world that he wishes to escape from.

As you’d expect from the Coens, this has many witty lines and oddball characters, with the funniest being the travelling salesman Creighton Tulliver (Polito), a wig-wearing homosexual who involves Crane in a dry-cleaning scheme. There is also a very amusing minor subplot about aliens, which has to be seen in the context of the film to be understood. Yet, by the end, the film has become desperately moving, partly because of our sympathy for Crane and the other characters, but also because of the depiction of the inexorable pull of fate; unlike American Beauty, there is no life-affirming message in suburbia, but only the usual human vices, all the more poignant for being so ordinary.

I could go on indefinitely, mentioning the oh-so-clever use of imagery to illuminate character, the incredibly moving Carter Burwell score or even the Lolita-esque subplot. However, this is a film that is better experienced than spoilt in a review, and I would highly recommend that you see this magnificent piece of cinema, one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

Alexander Larman

Updated: Oct 18, 2001

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