Thursday, January 10, 2002
The Man Who Wasn’t There is a cool film – a moody period film noir about blackmail and murder – and the Coen brothers can always be relied upon to deliver something interesting, but is that enough this time?
Billy Bob Thornton plays the title character with such reserve and quiet intensity that he’s transformed from his other more showboating roles. He says very little, and drifts through scenes breathing, smoking and doing very little else.
His growing disdain for his own life and the misguided attempt he makes to break out of it powers the film. Frances McDormand and James Gandolfini put in their usual solid performances, and Tony Shalhoub threatens to steal the movie as the unctuous lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider.
The film is a tribute to movies such as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and creates the same sense of passionate menace under the surface of constricted lives in a respectable town. Shot in black and white (or more accurately, shot on colour film stock but printed in black and white), it looks beautiful, and the plot unfolds with a certain tragic inevitability.
It’s very cool, but perhaps a little too cold to be engaging. It has the Coen brothers’ trademark cleverness – look at us, we’re making a film noir full of hip film references – and this distances you from the drama, making it feel like an expensive and elaborate fake.
The danger of having so passive a character as the lead in the film is that it’s hard to care what happens to him when he doesn’t care himself. The suggestion that he’s a representative of ‘modern man’ is to tie him to a deliberately dated idea, distancing him still further from us – there’s nothing so weird as an old-fashioned vision of the future.
And Riedenschneider’s version of the Uncertainty Principle is wittily done, but playing pick and mix from the big ideas of the 1940s only goes so far.
That’s not to say that The Man Who Wasn’t There isn’t worth watching (Scarlett Johansson is excellent as the teenager Birdy Abundas who’s old beyond her years), it’s just that you’d like the Coens to turn their considerable talents away from making smart films about film, and instead to making moving films about people.
A little less cool, and a bit more warm.