After indulging the antics of the cockeyed cavalcade of misfits populating The Big Lebowski and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, critics saw the Coen Brothers’ James M. Cain-inspired The Man Who Wasn’t There as a return to their film noir origins. With a directorial win at Cannes and a slew of good notices, The Man Who Wasn’t There exemplified, yet expanded upon, the pedigree of its predecessor 1985’s Blood Simple. What many failed to observe, however, was how the siblings’ mannered take on the aesthetics of 1940s American crime dramas captured the period when Frank Capra’s small town morality collided with the ethos of 50s consumerism. Rather than abandoning the picaresque populism of the filmmakers’ previous entries, The Man Who Wasn’t There underscored it on a tragic, yet mournfully comic, note.
Blood Simple, like Body Heat several years before, ushered in a third wave of film noir, one that revived the stylized language, romantic fatalism, and chiaroscuro deep-focus photography of post WWII-American crime cinema. Unlike late-60s-70s neo noir, which employed environmentally detailed naturalism and tortured method acting to reflect that decade’s existential malaise, filmmakers like the Coens adopted a hyper-accentuated style where the totality of cinematic elements (photography, editing, music, performance, etc) charted an abstractly precise geography of the characters’ movements and gestures in visually compressed blocks of space, merging psychological impressions with narrative compression. It reintroduced studio system values and aesthetics to the cinematic mainstream, influencing directors like Quentin Tarantino, whose movies projected a rambunctiously reverent but self-consciously ironic tone for independent cinema in the 90s.
By their 2001 return to the period crime films that established their reputation, the Coen Brothers were able to re-integrate a degree of social observation into their intensely mannered aesthetic. In Blood Simple, the Coens used slow camera movements and deliberately stilted down blocking of actors to establish a sense of omniscience of the plot’s mechanism that no character fully possesses, generating a darkly comic sense of procedural irony into a grotesque exploration of small town domestic melodrama. With The Man Who Wasn’t There, the audience experiences a more limited omniscience, glomming the plot’s emergence through the eyes of Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), a small town barber whose life gets upended one uncharacteristic gamble that alters the direction of his life.
Stuck with a flattened mode of self-expression (iconically chiseled in the film’s expressionistic style), Ed is defined by the good citizens of his native town of Santa Rosa, California by a lack of personality, and is only recognized by the social roles that he dutifully, even stoically, performs; as a barber and husband. The regularity and consistency of his conduct lends a sense of reassurance to his extended family and community. What we get from the protagonist’s voiceover and the point of view shots that define his perception is a man with a passion for order that is mostly misread as indifference and passivity. The only physical contact that Ed has with his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand) is when she asks him to shave his legs, where her confidence in his professional expertise and fastidiousness provide the only ground of marital intimacy and mutual toleration. Ed, however, also desires growth and change, which conflicts with his obsession for cleanliness. The Barber’s dilemma breaks into the open when he blackmails his wife’s boss, Big Dave Brewer (James Gandolfini), in order to fund an investment in a dry cleaning franchise. In pure Coens fashion this sets off a chain of chaotic events and misunderstandings, leading to tragic repercussions.
The opening credits establish that we are watching a movie in the classical film noir style. In the credits a barber pole, shot in black and white, descends from view as the camera glides upwards, points down, then tracks the pate of a customer entering the barber shop. Soon, Ed introduces himself as the character via a voice over directed to the audience. He tells of how he is known as “the barber” but that nobody really knows him, a condition that his face shows with the subtlest twinge of agitation. It also informs us that the movie is taking place in 1949, a year in which noir was at its zenith in American cinema. By taking humorous advantage of the contrast beyween the interiority of Ed’s thoughts with the blankness of his public visage, the film informs us of its concerns about the vagaries of perception, of how, as attorney Freddy Reidenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) says, by looking at one thing we never know the truth of a matter, because we don’t have knowledge of other options.
Soon, chiaroscuro lighting underscores this notion, as key details in the frame are blocked out in shade, or minor details from off-camera or the corners of the frame disturb the still, generally contemplative reverie of images captured by cinematographer Roger Deakins. The assumed fixity of meaning behind small town complacency becomes increasingly fluid, as the consequences of the blackmail scheme initiates official public narratives shared by the police and the townspeople that differ from Ed’s knowledge. The expressionistic aesthetic employed by the Coens creates a psychologically disquieting portrait of alienation in a small town, squeezing out color, light, and naturalism from its palette, much in the way that classical Hollywood portrayed American life in the period in which the film was set.
Like certain classic noirs like Shadow of a Doubt, They Live by Night, and even populist cinema like It’s a Wonderful Life, The Man Who Wasn’t There’s expressionism creates an interior exploration of the impact of mass culture on rural American values. Nerdlinger’s department store becomes a conduit for Big Dave to seduce Doris, who sees in the fantastical glamour of consumerism a means for escaping her “fiery Mediterranean” ethnicity and passionless marriage. The potential of dry cleaning to link small businessmen to national commercial networks entices Ed to stretch his horizon beyond his usual reticence. Through nursing the possibility of achieving something bigger in their lives, the Cranes feel the prejudices and limits of small town life, and sense the possibility for growth and escape from the provincialism of their environment. However, as film noir tells us, we can’t truly escape who we are, or where we are from, and ultimately, they lose a connection to the person who best comprehends their mutual longing and desperation.
There are also some modern innovations to the film’s style that distinguish it from classical noir. As opposed to relying on Carter Burwell to provide a dramatically emphatic score, the Coen’s heavily utilize Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Third Sonata to create a romantically elliptical mood. The theme is associated with Bertie (Scarlett Johanson), a high school pianist who Ed becomes smitten with in his ebullience in pulling off the blackmail scheme. The picture also uses subtle humor when rehashing old movie scenes and clichés, as when the small town police uncomfortably break some bad news to Ed about his wife, clearly hating the shit detail they pulled as it requires them to show some uncharacteristic compassion at odds with their projected style of masculinity. All of these create a disoriented sense of style and tonal expectation, reinforcing the disequilibrium Ed experiences throughout the film.
In the final analysis, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a masterfully controlled collection of fundamental paradoxes and contradictory impulses, capturing a period of historical change from a position of profound uncertainty. Pivoting between tradition and modernity, the film captures the bewildering flux in American life in a self-conscious style that acknowledges, even revels, in the classicism of Hollywood visual grammar while subtly integrating unexpected humor and irony into its perspective. It simultaneously allows us to appreciate its dark glamour, yet remain distantly self aware of the fragility of its artifice. As Doris’ brother might say in complete exasperation, “What Kind of Film Is This!?” In response, a voice from another planet in the Coen-verse might answer “accept the mystery.”