Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Man Who Wasn’t There


So here’s the Coen Brothers take on a ‘40s film noir. And what a sight it is to see. It’s in glorious black and white, of course, and in many shots it might as well have been filmed in 1949, when it is set. They go so far as to deliberately make the scenes in cars look phony, like they did back then, with the exterior obviously a back projection. The set design is perfect. Though I was only 2 in 1949 that’s old enough to recall when things looked like this, felt like this; in some scenes I felt I could even smell what the world was like back then. Everyone smoked. Billy Bob Thornton, as a colorless (it’s B&W, but in every scene he is just gray, from head to toe), nearly invisible barber making one last hopeless attempt to change his insufferably boring life, lights a cigarette or has one dangling from his mouth in every scene. Even when he’s cutting hair. There are shots that are awesome in their stark beauty and angularity, almost like German Expressionists from the 1930s like Fritz Lang or Robert Wiene. They were so interesting that I frequently paused the DVD so I could study the scene more closely.

So all the technical stuff works fabulously. The story is a humdinger, too, sordid and ironic as noir should be. Acting is uniformly first-rate, with Tony Shalhoub as a fancy city lawyer, and several others we’ve seen in previous Coen movies, including Joe Polito as a sleazy and improbably gay man selling dry cleaning franchises. (Dry cleaning was one of those post-war “miracles,” like television and TV dinners.) Scarlett Johannson—16 at the time—is very good. The wonderful Frances McDormand appears in her sixth Coen film (she has said that sleeping with the director—her husband Joel Coen—hasn’t hurt in getting parts in Coen films), and is as good and different as usual. She sees herself as a character actress, even though she frequently stars, and she’s right. She can become almost anything. Billy Bob gives a performance so motionless, emotionless, and restrained that you almost want to fit him for a casket. This works … most of the time. If the film has a flaw it is that the deliberately slow pace sometimes felt just too slow. Here and there I wanted to hurry it along a bit. I also wasn’t quite sure of the choice of music. It’s almost entirely Beethoven piano sonatas, most often the Pathétique. I love the music, but I sometimes didn’t think it fit that well with the noir story. It would have been interesting to see it re-scored by one of the big Hollywood composers of the era, who would certainly have written something more dramatic. But that’s a quibble. This movie continues the Coens’ streak of brilliance to nine. Are they heading for a fall, like Pixar finally did with Cars 2? Tune in next week for the next exciting episode.