Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, James Gandolfini, Tony Shalhoub
Director:  Joel Coen
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  USA Entertainment
Features:  See Review
Length:  116 Minutes
Release Date:  April 16, 2002

“I don't talk much…I just cut the hair.”

Film ***1/2

The essence of noir, according to Martin Scorsese, is that there is no absolution…you just keep paying for your sins.  But it isn't about bad characters doing bad deeds…it's about NORMAL characters doing bad deeds.  The world of noir is a dark and foreboding one, without comfort for its audience…it's a world of bad luck and dire twists of fate, where the most unexpected events not only happen, but destroy you as a result.

According to Joel and Ethan Coen, The Man Who Wasn't There is about a barber who wants to be a dry cleaner.  Noir material?  Definitely…especially in the hands of the artists who made Blood Simple and Fargo.  The Coen Brothers know all about simply dreams going terribly awry, and they've created just the character with which to propel their warped story of blackmail, murder, and justice.

That character is Ed Crane (the excellent Thornton), a quiet man with a simple suburban life in 1949.  He works as a barber in the shop owned by his brother in law, Frank (Badalucco).  His wife, Doris (McDormand), works for the local department store, but is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (Gandolfini).  Does Ed know about it?  It would seem so.  How does he react?  Pretty much the same way he moves through the rest of the story…slowly.

This is a setting where little would seem to happen, but change is about to enter Ed's life for the first time in a long time.  When a too-good-to-be-true proposition comes his way, he begins to think…maybe his wife's infidelity is the key to making his modest dreams come true!  But perhaps the point is that guys like Ed shouldn't dream.  Dreaming is too painful.

I won't divulge the wicked twists that come along…the Coen Brothers deliver their punches with their usual dark wit, where humor doesn't ease tension, but coils it even tighter.  There is more than a share of irony involved, but it is irony scripted by fate's wicked sense of fair play.  Ed's world was once as constant as can be, but it turns into one surprise after another.  People continually show up to deliver bad news to him, though never the news he or we, the audience, is expecting.  His solace comes from unusual places…a piano playing schoolgirl, for one, and an expensive lawyer who refers to himself in third person more than Bob Dole.

The story is a pleasure…the look of the film is even more so.  Cinematographer Roger Deakins scored a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his work, which creates a black and white world like I've never seen.  Taking place in 1949, Deakins and the Coens created a picket-fence, bleached bread suburban landscape and then photographed it with all the imposing light and shadow play of German Expressionism.  Imagine “Leave it to Beaver” through the eyes of F. W. Murnau, and you get the idea.

Billy Bob Thornton is an amazing actor, and this script gives him a chance to show a completely different side of his talent.  Known for playing strongly defined characters, he plays Ed with a quiet stillness.  He listens instead of talks; he reacts rather than acts.  He almost lets Ed fade into the background to where we'd actually lose track of him if the camera didn't seek him out.  His work is a revelation, and the cornerstone that makes every other aspect of the picture work.

The Man Who Wasn't There deserves to be considered in the same vein as the Coen Brothers' best movies.  It's a new take on noir as only their imaginations could concoct. 

Video ****

I mentioned the cinematography, and this anamorphic transfer from USA equates to one of the best looking black and white films I've seen on disc.  The imagery from start to finish are absolute textbook for explaining to the uninitiated just how powerfully expressive black and white can be.  The whites are clean and pure, the blacks are deep and rich, and every tone of grayscale is vibrant and balanced.  Contrast is strong without ever distorting, and there is no evidence of grain, haze, or compression, no matter how light or dark the individual scenes.  Outstanding!

Audio ***

This is a decent 5.1 mix for a dialogue oriented film.  I don't think the .1 channel ever kicked in, but then again, I didn't miss it.  Most of the action is on the front stage, where spoken words are clear and panning effects are smooth and tasteful.  The rear stage opens up for the score and a few busier scenes to add a little dimension.  Beethoven's “Pathetique” on piano sounds particularly lovely, and becomes a repeated motif.  A quality effort, given the nature of the subject matter.

Features ***

This DVD has the appearance of a great features package, but like the lawyer in the movie says, sometimes the closer you look, the less you see.  I enjoyed the commentary track with Billy Bob Thornton and the Coen brothers…it was moderately informative, but an entertaining listen.  You'll hear less about the actual filmmaking process and more stories about Thornton quitting smoking…but there are also some jewels when they talk about the characters in depth (it's clear they all have affinity for Ed Crane). 

There is a making of featurette, which is actually about 15 minutes worth of cut-together interviews…no flow, no structure, no depth.  There is an interview with cinematographer Roger Deakins, which will interest serious cinema buffs.  It runs about 46 minutes, but unfortunately, is also poorly assembled and dully presented.  There are even accidental jump cuts that seem to omit some information here and there.

Rounding out are five deleted scenes, a trailer and two TV spots, filmographies and a photo gallery.


The Man Who Wasn't There is another treat from the Coen Brothers to true cinephiles.  It's a unique, character-driven tribute to noir, sumptuously photographed, superbly acted, and written with an edgy humor.  If you love the movies, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.