It's official: The Coen brothers have their heads stuck firmly inside their own asses--but at least they do a nice job of it. Ever since the brilliant debut of their murder-iffic thriller Blood Simple in 1984, the Coens have positioned themselves as cinematic auteurs with a dark, philosophical sense of humor. And while many of their projects have been hit or miss--Raising Arizona and Fargo in the "hit" pile, Barton Fink and O Brother, Where Art Thou? in the "miss"--until recently, they could always be depended upon to provide an entertaining product.
However, with their latest film, The Man Who Wasn't There, it would appear the Brothers Coen--while still capable of cinematic wonders--have officially lost their way. And though fans will probably be thrilled at the prospect of the Coen's returning to their smoky film noir roots, in the end, the movie provides little more than a nicely photographed trip to Bummersville.
The story (shot entirely in crisp black and white) begins in post-WWII Petaluma, California. Bragging soldiers have returned home and the economy is booming. Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a dissatisfied second-string barber who sees his life rushing past him. To say Crane is stoic would be an understatement; he spends each day silently smoking cigarettes, cutting the occasional head of hair, and listening to the owner of the shop (Michael Badalucco) prattle on endlessly. He dreams of dreams--to have a job, or even a cause that could furnish him with the direction his life lacks. Suddenly, hope pops out of nowhere when a customer informs him of a new invention that could potentially make him rich--a dubious method of cleaning fine garments called "Dry Cleaning."
However, in order to invest in the partnership, Crane must come up with $10,000 he doesn't have. And so he concocts a plot to blackmail the wealthy lover (James Gandolfini) of his wife (Frances McDormand). Naturally, a litany of Coen brothers-style complications ensue, including death, thinly veiled pedophilia, and a trip to the electric chair.
As stated before, if you're a fan of film noir, you'll be wowed by director Joel Coen's mastery of black and white cinematography. This film is absolutely beautiful to look at, with both light and shadows dancing across the set pieces and characters, accentuating every thoughtful crevice in Thornton's face (who, in this role, looks like a cross between Lee Marvin and Richard Widmark). Likewise, the sweeping orchestration by composer Carter Burwell (Being John Malkovich) perfectly underscores the menace as well as thoughtfulness of the script. But the script itself? That's when we run into problems.
Unlike most classic film noir, which clips along at a breakneck, suspenseful pace, The Man Who Wasn't There stumbles along like a lame horse. It imitates film noir's style, without possessing the drive that keeps the action in motion. On a basic level, the Coens have constructed a snappy little mystery, but it is continually bogged down by the Achilles' heel of their past productions--philosophy.
As a lawyer in the film put it, "The more you look at an object, the less you know about it." This theme is meant to reflect the barber trying to make sense of his life, but he's hampered by events swirling out of control, leaving him helpless to bring anything into focus. This Nietzschian idea may be very thought-provoking, but in a movie, it's death. The potentially entertaining mystery the Coen's weave is constantly hobbled by this idea, starting and stopping, impeded by its own slow, lugubrious tone.
And while the philosophy--how can man find his place in the world?--is far too heavy-handed, the laughs are unfortunately few. Much like the barber in their story, the Coens seem to have lost their way and find themselves buried beneath a ton of ever-tumbling philosophical musings that have no end. "Buried" is an apt description, because after leaving the film, you'll feel like you're buried in a tar pit 20 feet deep.
And who wants to feel like that?