By contrast to Amélie, the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There is ferociously understated. An exquisitely monochromatic tale of adultery, blackmail, and murder under the California sun, this fastidiously hyperreal neo-noir suggests a sadder but wiser remake of the Coens' rambunctious debut, Blood Simple, and is even more a pastiche of tough-guy novelist James M. Cain. Frances McDormand and Billy Bob Thornton play an unhappily married couple. He's a timid barber; she's a brassy bookkeeper blatantly fooling around with her glad-handing boss (James Gandolfini). Thornton's spontaneous plan to invest in a dry-cleaning scheme pitched to him by a passing grifter (Jon Polito) effectively throws the triangle disastrously off-kilter.
Even in this perversely recalcitrant world, the Coens find their puppets an endless source of amusement. Dragging ponderously on a cigarette as he pretends to cut a customer's hair, Thornton gives an exceedingly dry performance. His surface catatonia conceals a busy inner life that's expressed in morose voice-over, complete with metaphysical musings on the fact that, even after death, hair "just keeps growing." As though the turgid stream of consciousness were insufficient, Thornton's non-reactive taciturnity is accentuated by juxtaposing him with the effusive McDormand and keeping him surrounded by a gaggle of garrulous gargoyles. In a typical Cain touch, Thornton fixates on a sensitive teenage girl (Scarlett Johansson)drawn by her rendition of Beethoven's lugubrious "Moonlight Sonata" in the midst of a department store Christmas party.
The Man Who Wasn't There
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Loews Lincoln Square
A tediously sub-Lynchian UFO subplot notwithstanding, the Coens have not lost their cleverness. In one sight gag, Thornton gets slammed in close-up against a glass door that waits a beat and then fissures. The voice-over several times twists itself into a self-conscious pretzel, and the movie is well-stocked with meaningless signifiers. (The action is setbut not shotin Santa Rosa, location for Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt; the self-regarding lawyer is named for a character in The Asphalt Jungle.) It's also morally tone-deaf. The extravagantly hardboiled metaphor that something or other "vaporized like the Nips at Nagasaki" might even have given Mike Hammer pause.
In an essay on Cain, Joyce Carol Oates referred to the antihero of The Postman Always Rings Twice as "the very voice of mass man." On trial for a murder he never committed, Thornton is similarly characterized by his ridiculously assured lawyer (Tony Shalhoub), who further bases his defense on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. In at least two novels, Cain protagonists recount their stories under sentence of death. What's postmodern about the Coens' antihero is the revelation that he's writing his for a men's magazine at five cents a word. The postman always rings twice, indeed.
There's a fine distinction between the cool and the comatose and, punishingly slow, The Man Who Wasn't There repeatedly drifts over the line. Were the Coens asleep at the wheel or presciently mourning the death of irony? Still, as pointless as the movie often feels, the production design is impeccable, even devotional. Lit to perfection and astonishingly beautiful, Thornton is a far more distinguished cartoon character than Amélie from Montmartre. Her foolish grin proclaims what-me-worry; his chiseled mask of tragedy could make him the poster boy for Prozac.
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