Critique: ‘The Man Who Wasn’t there’ (2001)

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Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 1, edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, 2010

Sandwiched between the irreverence of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), and the Hollywood romance of Intolerable Cruelty (2003), The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) is an altogether-darker Coen-brother experience. Presented in black and white (although it was shot in colour), this is another take on film noir that builds upon their earlier flirtations with the genre, such as Blood Simple (1984) and The Big Lebowski (1998). In the inimitable Coen style, their neo-noir also incorporates numerous other influences as the narrative unfolds – not least, trial films and the B-movie sci-fi of the 1950s – and packages them all within an expertly-rendered image of the era that actually looks as though it were shot then.

Ed Crane the protagonist, superbly played by Billy Bob Thornton, is never without a cigarette dangling from his lips, his head surrounded by wisps of smoke and his face lit starkly to convey every emotion without him having to speak or move, which of course suits the noir styling of the film. Ed has things happen to him, and at no point does he have any semblance of control over the mechanisms of his life and his narrative trajectory. At times, this lackadaisical approach can be frustrating to watch but Thornton’s withdrawn style, occasionally supported by mumbling voice-over narration, allows the supporting actors to develop characters with large, memorable personalities within the highly-stylized mise-en-scène, while Francis McDormand and James Gandolfini, playing the extra-marital couple, ably generate the friction in the first part of the film as the story flip-flops between tales of bribery and adultery, greed and lust…


The full 800 word version of this review is published in Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 1, edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, 2010. 

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