Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Guest Review: The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

A Film Review by Tennessee Jed

Few would deny the Coen brothers are among the most acclaimed film makers of their generation. Yet much of their work has not resonated quite as loudly at the box office as with the critics. Some claim the brothers dwell too often on negative or depressing themes. That could certainly be argued for one of their more obscure films, The Man Who Wasn’t There. Perhaps so, but it is probably my favorite Coen Brothers film for a variety of reasons which I’ll discuss below.

Format - The idea for this film germinated from a poster used in the film The Hudsucker Proxy which depicts various styles of haircuts from the 1940ʼs. As the brothers developed their idea, they settled on a film noir, black comedy set in the late 40ʼs. The Coens freely credit as their inspiration the gritty style of writer James M. Cain (Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.) As such, they chose to use black and white, and the conventional, straightforward filming techniques of the time. Along with thorough attention to realistic props, there is no question the movie accurately reflects the look of the period. Interestingly, cinematographer Roger Deakins points out he actually shot the movie on modern color stock, then modified it to black and white, claiming that gave the film a more smooth and lush texture (non-grainy) than could otherwise have been possible.

Themes - As with other works by the Coen brothers, this film implicitly explores the philosophies of both Soren Kierkegaard (Existentialism) and Albert Camus (Absurdism.) The latter is actually an outgrowth of the former and is grounded in the notion that it is impossible for man to make sense or order out of his life in a world that is fundamentally chaotic in nature. In fact, at the time of its release, several critics pointed out the numerous thematic similarities between this film and some of the works of Camus.
*** slight spoiler alert ***
Plot - This is a superb classic film noir story about a very ordinary man named Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) a barber in Santa Rosa, California in the late 40ʼs. The character serves as the film’s narrator, and is instinctively recognizable as the quiet unassuming man everyone has known at one time or another who blends into the background to the point he is virtually invisible (as intimated by the title.) Crane is second chair in a barber shop owned by his brother-in-law, Frank (Michael Badulucco of L.A. Law.) Ed is settled into what could best be described as a stale marriage to Frank’s sister Doris (Frances McDormand.)

Doris works as an accountant at Nirdlingerʼs, a local family owned department store and drinks too much. Her boss, “Big Dave” Brewster (James Gandolfini) owes his own career to his marriage to Ann, the daughter of the store’s owner. Ed feels certain Doris is having an affair with “Big Dave” (“all the signs were there”) but true to his character, he appears outwardly to not particularly care all that much.

One day, Ed is cutting the hair of a stranger in town named Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito.) Tolliver is looking for a silent financial partner in a new, potentially commercially viable process known as dry cleaning. Intrigued, but without the means to invest the required $10,000, Ed hits upon a scheme to anonymously blackmail “Big Dave” regarding his affair with Doris. Big Dave even confides in Ed that he is being blackmailed for $10,000 for an affair he is having with a married woman (not mentioning it is Doris, of course), asking him what he should do. Ed naturally advises Big Dave to pay, then secretly collects the money from the drop, and signs the paperwork for his partnership with Tolliver who is in the process of heading out of town.

However, as so often happens in well-crafted film noir, the web of deceit woven by Ed Crane becomes tangled and quickly spins out of control as a complex set of events conspire to create unanticipated consequences not revealed in this review.

Acting - Headlined by a masterful performance from Thornton (in which he puts on a clinic for the term “underacting,”) the strength of acting is uniformly top rate throughout the cast. In addition to Thornton’s role and an equally strong performance by Gandolfini, some of the “usual suspects” found in Coen brothersʼ films make their presence known as well. Frances McDormand (Joel Coenʼs wife) is her usual brilliant self playing Doris to perfection. I have had the pleasure of meeting Jon Polito numerous times before his career started (while he was at Villanova University sharing an apartment in Bryn Mawr with a high school buddy of mine.) Polito, who regularly collaborates with the Coen brothers, is one of the best character actors in the business. When people look him up and see his picture, everybody goes “Oh Yeah . . . him . . . sure!”

There are also several smaller roles with effective performances by a young Scarlett Johansson as Birdy Abundas, a teenaged neighbor and potentially talented piano student, as well as Tony Shaloub (Monk) as hot shot attorney Freddy Riedenschneider. I would be remiss, though, without mentioning a funny and fine performance by Richard Jenkins as Birdyʼs father Walter Abundas.

Direction - Joel Coen shared best director award at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival with David Lynch for Mulholland Drive. Both equally deserved the award. When you look at each scene carefully, it is hard to argue with most of the choices made by the director, although the occasional allusions to extra terrestrials and flying saucers were mostly lost on me. Still, the look, feel, and pacing of the film are all superb and credit must be given where it is due.

Summary - Much of the award nominations went to the cinematography, and I agree the techniques used to simulate a 40ʼs era film noir were superb. But really, this film works well on a lot of different levels. It is well plotted and scripted with plenty of black humor throughout, all expertly handled by the actors. The music soundtrack consisting mainly of Beethoven piano sonatas is, perhaps, unexpectedly effective given the genre. There is almost nothing I would change, but admit that Edʼs seeming indifference at the end to his ultimate fate might seem a tad unrealistic even from an absurdist point of view. Neverthless, it is a film I would highly recommend and remains my personal Coen Brothers favorite.

What are your thoughts about this film, and do you have a favorite Coen film?


AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks for an excellent review! I liked this film a lot, though as with all Coen brothers films I did not "enjoy" it. In fact, I can't think of a single Coen brothers film that didn't depress me at least a little.

My favorite film of theirs is either Fargo or Hudsucker. I lean toward Hudsucker because it's just so dang clever.... "you know... for kids!" LOL! But Fargo is a film I just can't take my eyes off of.

Tennessee Jed said...

Thanks, Andrew. That is definitely a fair assessment of most of their work. It is great film making, and almost always thought provoking. No one will ever accuse them of making "feel good" pictures. I think there is almost always a degree of cleverness to their movies.

Admittedly, Fargo is one heck of a film. Having lived in the cities for half a decade, I couldn't help but feel they were a little over the top in the "Scandic" influence on the accents used. It did put Frances McDormand on the map and propelled William Macy to a whole new level of success.

I just saw their re-make of True Grit in my theater, and must say they completely won me over. Initially, I felt there was no compelling need to make that film other than to try and erase people's memory of the Duke's signature role. But, I was wrong and Jeff Bridges has completely won me over after Crazy Heart and True Grit.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I've known a few Minnasoddans, and I agree, it was a bit over the top. But it was still brilliant.

I think all their films are deeply thought provoking at times but two problems I have with them are that they often include things that seem gratuitous and often just make you uncomfortable (like the scene with the Asian guy in Fargo) and their characters are very hard to like.

That said, I absolutely respect their films and I like almost all of them.

On this one, it's funny to me now when I see Tony Soprano in another film. Gandolfini has really become that character to me.

DUQ said...

I haven't seen this one, but my favorite Coen Brothers film is either "True Grit" or "Oh Brother, Where Are Though." That was a strange film, but an interesting one. I really like Alison Krauss's singing in that one too.

Tennessee Jed said...

The "Asian" guy from Fargo is a great example of what we are both talking about. It is definitely a "slice of life" scene in that everybody can sort of somehow relate to something vaguely like that happening to "somebody whom they know or somebody whom they know, knows." It gives you an uneasy laugh, and in reality, has very little, if anything, to do with advancing the plot. So, does that make it gratuitous or add a little texture to the overall story? That is a question in which a skilled debator could probably craft a winning argument ON EITHER SIDE! In truth there is probably a little truth in calling it both.

tryanmax said...

Hudsucker is the first Coen brothers film I ever saw and a few days later, I came across The Man Who Wasn't There among the previously viewed for sale in the video rental store. I scooped it up entirely based on the movie I had seen and was not disappointed one bit. Now Imma hafta hook up the ol' VeeSeeArr and watch it again. LOL!

Tennessee Jed said...

DUQ - Oh Brother was a retelling of the tale of Job from the bible. If it did nothing else, it either created or revised interest in a form of music I've loved since I was a little guy. I just got to see Alison and Union Station live a month or so ago, and they are truly special. They are practitioners of "New Grass" a more modern, polished style of blue grass and other "Americana" and "Roots" music. Fortunately, living in Knoxville, I get see these acts up close and personal all the time. Clooney was o.k., but I really thinks he gets more credit as an actor than he deserves just because he is a liberal heartthrob in every sense of the word.

As I mentioned, the brothers won me over with their version of True Grit after being predesposed not to like it.

Tennessee Jed said...

It will be interesting to see how many people, if any, give a shout out to Miller's Crossing. What I like about the Coen's is they do very stylized films in different genres. Miller's Crossing may have been the first (or more likely the second after 'Blood Simple.') I really like Gabriel Byrne (spelling?) and distinctly remember it being one of the better movies that came out at the time, and remember comparing it to Mulholland Falls which, I think was from that same time period.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - I know what you mean about Gandolfini. At least he did not sucumb to the George Reeves syndrome where he could never be taken seriously in another role after portraying tthe Man of Steel on television.

Tennessee Jed said...

Tryanmax - good for you! I fondly remember the days when I would buy tapes or discs site unseen based on who was involved in the picture, the genre, etc. More often than not, I was rewarded with a hidden gem. Sadly those days are gone, but hopefully, not forever.

Ed said...

Jed, I love "Millers Crossing." When I saw it, I had no idea what to expect and it blew me away. The Coens can be depressing and their stuff can be lumbering in some ways, but it always feels truly solid like you've just seen a real story and not just manufactured garbage like you get in Hollywood these days.

Tennessee Jed said...

A nice assessment, Ed. They don't cheat you on story, for sure, and for the most part, it all could easily happen, even if in a depressing absurdist kind of way. With their films, I find myself usually liking them better after at least one screening. That may have something to do with, as you say, a certain lumbering quality to the storylines, or it may just be I may actually enjoy dissecting the craftsmanship of their films as much as watching the films themselves. One thing, as I get older, I find I need to watch them when I am fully fresh and alert ;-(

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I've seen him in a couple older movies and I keep thinking "whack 'em Tony!" LOL!

The thing about the Asian guy is that I think it's gratuitous BECAUSE they could have achieved the same thing AND added obvious meaning to the story. In other words, I think they could have found a way to include that scene in a way that made an obvious contribution to the plot by telling us something specifically relevant to the characters. But I don't think it did in this case.

To me, that's where the line rests -- does it move the plot or tell you something that will be relevant to the plot at some point. If it doesn't, then I think it's gratuitous and should be rethought to make sure it does fit the plot.

Also, one of the hardest things to do as a writer (in any style) is to throw out things you've written that just don't really contribute. It is amazing how much better your writing gets once you learn this key skill. Unfortunately, a lot of the things the Coens include strike me as things they thought were great, but never managed to find a way to make them part of the story -- those are the things that need to be pulled out. Maybe they're worth another film, maybe they aren't, but they shouldn't be in the film unless they contribute.

On "Oh Brother," I always thought it was a retelling of "The Odyssey"?

I really liked the singing too and I thought the film style was great. I enjoyed Clooney too, probably more than you did. But there's no doubt his career is fading.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed & Jed, I agree completely. One thing you always get in their films is total immersion in the story. In other words, when it's over, you have watched the story and you felt like you were a part of it -- that's actually a good deal more rare in movies than people think.

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - yes, the Odyssey, of course; just a mis-type on my part. I couldn't argue intellectually with your points about writing and gratuitousness. If one assumes they are absurdists, it might help to explain a little of these "random" scenes that don't quite seem to fit. Overall, I expect it would be so much better if it did contribute. Instead, what I think they are going for is here is this protagonist name Margie, a female pregnant sheriff who all of a sudden catches a case way beyond what she sees. I think they try and get a little bit of backdoor development of her character through these things; i.e. her ordinariness, a husband who is into birds unlimited stamp art, and a former admirer who is still carrying a torch. Not defending or dissig it so much as taking a stab at why they do it repeatedly in their films.

Koshcat said...

I haven't seen this film, but I tend to have liked their other films. Now I want to see it. It is hard for me to pick a favorite since they are often so different from one another. It is also interesting how many became sort of cult classics like The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona. Fargo has generally been my favorite since I grew up in Montana around alot of Scandinavians. True Grit was much better than I expected as was Burn Before Reading. Let's hope they continue to experiment throughout their careers instead of Lucasing at the end.

T-Rav said...

Jed, great review. I haven't seen this, although I have heard good things about it. (Cue shocked reaction from Andrew.)

"O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is certainly my favorite. It doesn't even seem like a standard Coen movie to me, although I guess I can see commonalities with their other work. I haven't seen all of "No Country for All Men," but it seems interesting, though a bit too grim.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav... WHAT?! I am shocked! 8o

Just kidding...

I really enjoy Oh Brother, it's such a unique film with some great acting and fascinating twists and turns and very memorable lines.

Koshcat, All in all, I wasn't a big fan of The Big Lebowski, BUT it's got some fantastic moments in it that I think about all the time. When they throw the ashes and cover themselves, I literally spit out my drink the first time I saw that I was laughing so hard. And the child molester/bowling ball scene is just classic -- plus it's accompanied by a tremendous version of "Hotel California" by the Gypsy Kings, who are one of my favorite bands.

Tennessee Jed said...

Kosh - I know what you mean about Burn After Reading. I wan't expecting much and laughed my butt off. I think it reasonable to think of the Coen Brothers as a cult in and of themselves. Certainly, there are many who live and die for Lebowki. On that particular fim, I never liked it as much as some. I think it may been that effect where if enough people say a movie is "all that" one almost subconsciously decides to resist or at least be a little skeptical. I am glad you want to see. I think you won't be disappointed (he said setting up Kosh to be exactly that )

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I agree that it builds her character, but to me, the problem is that it doesn't pay off. In other words, there isn't a moment where this part of her becomes relevant to the story because it's tested or it's something she has to call upon to solve some conflict. To me, that's the distinction.

Tennessee Jed said...

Rav - thanks! I think you will find that "No Country For Old Men" is the poster child for Coen style nihilism. And O brother is a little different than most. Perhaps it may be due to the fact the storyline was borrowed from Homer (l.o.l.)

T-Rav said...

Okay, I'm gonna have to say...I have watched "Burn After Reading," and I HATED it. Well, maybe that's a little strong, but I didn't think it was funny at all. I guess maybe I didn't "get" it; all I know is, I spent an hour and a half waiting for the punch line or climax or what-have-you, and then was like "That's it?" Definitely one of my least favorite movie-watching experiences.

Tennessee Jed said...

T-Rav; I'm not certain the Coen Brothers are really all about punch lines and being laugh out loud funny. As with all art, we like what we like, and we almost hate what we almost hate.

AndrewPrice said...

T-Rav, I'm with you on that. I thought the film just didn't work on any level and it was tedious to watch.

I also don't think No Country For Old Men is anything special. To me, it's their most generic film.

T-Rav said...

Jed, I don't expect pie-in-the-face humor from the Coens, to be sure; but there's a difference between not being laugh-out-loud funny and not being funny, period. "Burn After Reading" is the latter to me. I just didn't see the humor in it.

But as you say, "we like what we like," and some people I know really liked it, so I don't worry about it too much. I'll just be very suspicious the next time I hear about a movie that has "comedy" and "Coen brothers" in the same sentence. ;-)

Retro Hound said...

The Coens are so likely to make depressing movies that my wife will only watch Raising Arizona and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. I however, love the Coens.

The aliens I just took as an example of their absurdity. Same as I did with the Asian guy with the Minnesota accent in Fargo. Those scenes always have me busting out in laughter.

My Favorites are (order is subject to change on daily whims and which one I most recently watched):

Raising Arizona
The Big Lebowski
The Man Who Wasn't There
Miller's Crossing
Blood Simple
No Country for Old Men
Burn After Reading

I HATED Barton Fink.

Retro Hound said...

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is supposed to be after The Big Lebowski.

AndrewPrice said...

Retro Hound, Absurd if a good way to look at it. There are always really crazy things in their films. And some of them are indeed really hilarious. I have to say I truly cringed at the Asian guy though.

Tennessee Jed said...

Retro Hound - I really appreciate your logic in ranking them :-) It makes for as good a way to do it as any. And, if we go back to Asian guy from Fargo for a minute, there is a certain randomness involved there. Putting it slightly differently, if you are an upstate Minnesota sheriff on a trip down to the cities, what's to say you wouldn't run across an old high school horn dog even though you cringe and feel for the guy as he totally melts down. Admittedly, the liklihood of finding him in an upstate high school goes down dramatically, but hell Dylan came from Hibbing so who knows?

Tennessee Jed said...

BTW Retro Hound - checked out your site and it's really cool.

Unknown said...

Tennessee: I have only seen two Coen movies (this one and "Fargo"). I loved Fargo, but consider "The Man Who Wasn't There" a great work. I haven't seen "Hudsucker Proxy" which several reviewers here like a lot. I'm afraid that the star (Tim Robbins) is on my short list of actors that I despise so much that I simply can't watch their movies.

Excellent movie, and an even better review. Thanks.

Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk - you have picked two of the best, and yet I think you would really enjoy True Grit, Miller's Crossing and Blood Simple as well. Those five are my favorites.

I understand where you are coming from vis-a-vis Robbins, I'd be hard pressed to watch him anymore, but there are some I saw him in before I got that adamant about him. He, Sean Penn, Danny Glover, Babs just ruin a film for me because I feel like I'm contributing directly to liberal organizations and politicians.

Unknown said...

Tennessee: I stand corrected (even though that wasn't what you were doing). I forgot to "decline my director's selection" at Columbia House, so I received the DVD of True Grit. I figured what the hell, and kept it, probably just to compare it to the John Wayne version. I was prepared to hate it (considering the stars, who are not on my "never watch" list, but not on my "always watch" list either). It was top-notch, and though there will never be another John Wayne, I actually consider the overall movie to be better than the original.

Apparently your "avoid at all costs" list of stars looks a lot like mine. LOL

Retro Hound said...

Tennessee Jed glad you liked the site.

I was in the Army with a guy from Hibbing.

I didn't mention True Grit. I liked it OK, but much prefer the original. Why did everyone talk like they had marbles in their mouth? I found that a bit annoying.

Tennessee Jed said...

Hawk - your experience with True Grit was not unlike my own. I was prepared to not like it because I had credited the Coen's with an agenda that, if I had thought about it, was not really there. Now the brothers are probably solid leftists and have worked with folks such as MATT EFFING DAMON, and GEORGE CLOONEY who wear their totalitarianism on their sleeves so to speak. Still, when I look at their body of work, it is hardly politicized as modern Hollywood goes.

I have finally gotten over "petty" or "small" when it comes to my "NO WATCH" list. Politics can be the third rail of polite discourse. If somebody tends to insult your beliefs, and actively rubs your nose in their financial contributions to those you politically oppose, why feel obligated? Why not vote with your wallet? Michael Jordan instinctively understood that concept. When taken to task by black political activits asking why he was not more visibly involved, Jordan responded "because Republicans by sneakers too."

Tennessee Jed said...

Retro Hound - up on the Mesabi Iron Range or "the range" as native "sotans" call it.

As far as dialect and marbles in the mouth go, I expect the answer is poor dentistry (l.o.l.) Seriously, the Texas Ranger did bite his tongue off . . . When I moved to East Tennessee, my oldest son (an entertainer) made the comment "dad, they don't touch their teeth together when they speak!" There is just a hint of truth to that.

Koshcat said...

Just finished it. You were right. Still, I can't help thinking that the aliens angle didn't have some purpose since it came up at least three different times.

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