The Coen brothers tread into James M. Cain territory with “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” but with less tasty results than either Cain or the Coens themselves at their best. Shooting in delicious black-and-white but papering over most of the central incident with incessant voiceover narration, the always inventive team tells a typically noirish tale of adultery, blackmail and murder at a dramatic remove, and with an aptly named title character who sets new standards for opaqueness and passivity. Beautifully made picture is one of the brothers’ second-tier efforts artistically and commercially.
Evocatively set in small-town Santa Rosa, Calif. (the scene of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Shadow of a Doubt”) in 1949, pic has all the ingredients at hand for an enticing film noir. It’s the way the Coens have decided to tell their story, however, that uncommonly mutes the action and saps it of its potential heat and tension; the viewer is largely told about what happens rather than being shown. Tactic has the effect of all but eliminating scenes of dramatic confrontation, makes the yarn’s dramatic twists less surprising and seriously curtails the opportunities for the Coens to play to their habitual and most reliable strength — snappy, wildly imaginative regional and period dialogue.
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Roughly assuming the role of one of Cain’s milquetoast fall guys, Billy Bob Thornton is Ed Crane, a gray-looking, closed-mouth barber who cuts hair alongside his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco), an expansive fellow who owns the shop and does most of the talking therein. When a chatty stranger in for a trim named Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito, recalling Akim Tamiroff right down to his toupee) mentions a hot business opportunity in dry-cleaning for which he needs a $10,000 investment, Ed decides to try to change his uneventful lot in life by blackmailing Big Dave (James Gandolfini), whom Ed knows is having an affair with his wife Doris (Frances McDormand).
Remainder of the story unveils the fateful ways in which Ed’s move affects others’ lives. Big Dave is sure that he’ll be thrown out of his marriage and lucrative position running his wife’s upscale department store if his infidelity is revealed. Thus he pays the 10 Gs, which he believes has been demanded by Tolliver, who also approached him about the investment. When Big Dave learns that the extortionist is actually Ed, he goes on the attack in the film’s only forcefully presented scene of action and violence — with sorry results for him.
The nifty twist at the beginning of act two has Doris, who doesn’t even yet know that her husband is wise to her philandering, arrested and charged with Big Dave’s murder; Doris, it turns out, has been helping her lover “cook the books” at the department store, and Ed takes the extreme measure of hiring the best lawyer in Northern California, Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), to try to save his wife from the chair. To finance Freddy’s extravagant ways, however, Frank has to sign the barber shop over to the bank, one of the many unanticipated domino effects that Ed’s ill-advised investment decision has around town.
Without revealing much more, it can be said that there are at least two more unanticipated deaths (both offscreen), a gradual awakening of emotion in Ed that at last prompts a degree of enthusiasm in this most taciturn of men, and a demonstration that the long arm of the law can reach out in highly ironic ways, as an odd late-in-the-game detour of not inconsiderable charm takes the tale directly into terrain thoroughly mapped by Cain in “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”
The film holds the interest, to be sure, but more due to the sure sense of craft and precise effect that one expects from the Coens than from genuine involvement in the story. There are some lovely poetic moments — Ed finding neighborhood teenager Birdy (Scarlett Johansson, much grown since “The Horse Whisperer” and very good) quietly playing Beethoven on a grand piano on the mezzanine during a department store Christmas party, humorous haircut montages (the Coens got the idea for this film from a haircut poster on the set of “The Hudsucker Proxy”) and a succession of dome and disc motifs that playfully link images of imprisonment, physical peril and, of all things, extra-terrestrial visitation.
But Ed’s mostly inert physical presence and all-but-continuous flow of narration make the tale proceed at what seems like three-quarters speed, a sensation compounded by Ed’s acknowledged self-image as “a ghost” and the widespread use of slowish Beethoven piano sonatas as musical background. If anyone today might have been thought capable of writing brilliant pulp narration, it would have been the Coens, but the prose has a damp, tapped-down quality that’s neither very colloquial nor especially engaging.
Wearing a waved salt-and-pepper toupee and spending much of his screen time smoking in repose while his v.o. does the narrative work, Thornton is quiet, watchful and thoughtful, even if his character finally reveals himself to be no brighter than he seemed at the outset. McDormand has precious little to do as the straying wife who doesn’t mind having to do all the talking in the family, while Gandolfini has an outstanding scene of comic distress as he confesses his own indiscretions to Ed. Badalucco, Polito, Shalhoub and Adam Alexi-Malle, the latter in one nifty scene as a piano teacher with a grand sense of style, punch over their roles in a very welcome manner.
Regular Coens lenser Roger Deakins makes the most of a rare opportunity to shoot in black-and-white, combining with Dennis Gassner’s production design, Mary Zophres’ costumes and an astutely selected combo of Southern California locations to create a superior post-war, small-town period feel.