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The Man Who Wasn't There

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2001 1 Jan
  • COMMENTS
The Man Who Wasn't There
from Film Forum, 11/08/01

The Coen Brothers have given us some of the strangest, funniest, and darkest visions of fortune-hunting in America, from Raising Arizona to Fargo. Riding the wave of Oscar nominations and a hit soundtrack, last year's O Brother, Where Art Thou? stands as their most successful and high-spirited work. They're following it up, strangely enough, with perhaps their biggest downer of all: The Man Who Wasn't There.

Painstakingly stylized to resemble a classic film noir, the movie stars Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane, the neighborhood barber, a man motivated only by money—but rarely motivated at all. In fact, he's so introverted that he's become something of a vacuum. Passionless, he ambles through his days, giving the same apathetic attention to the newspaper as he does to suspicions that his wife is cheating on him. When an opportunity to get rich quick arrives—dry cleaning, the wave of the future—Ed decides to blackmail his wife's lover so he can get some money and invest. Sure, the wrongdoers have it coming, and now so does Ed. But when it comes, Ed just keeps right on going, so passive and indistinct that law enforcement can't be bothered with investigating him.

This rather twisted comedy did not impress many critics in the religious media. John Adair (Preview) concludes, "while the film carries some positive themes about justice, frequent strong profanities should keep discerning viewers from seeing [the film.]" He does admit, "the enjoyable part of the story is seeing how justice actually does triumph in the end."

The USCC says, "the foreboding film's initial revelations sap the story of its potential dramatic intensity, but the black-and-white film is brilliantly steeped in period atmosphere and aptly conveys the descent of its misguided main character."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) describes it as "a fascinating take on the film noir genre. With the Coen's trademark snarkiness, the movie is significantly funnier than most noirs." He concludes, "While [the movie] can't measure up to the charm of O Brother, it nonetheless is both an entertaining and thought-provoking portrait."

Movieguide's Ted Baehr calls the cinematography magnificent," the direction superb, the acting flawless. But he finds the directors guilty of existential amorality. "The morality is ambivalent as is the spirituality. The Coens say that they want to express post World War II existential dread, but this is not a popular philosophy on which to build a movie, however appealing intellectually."

I have to disagree. (My review is at Looking Closer.) Just because the directors want to "express existential dread" does not mean, however, that they condone it as a healthy frame of mind. Ed, who narrates the story and lends the film his own sullen perspective, is not to be accepted as the voice of wisdom. Looking at the world through his eyes, I found it hard to care for him, or for his wife and his neighbor, even as the wages of sin come down on their heads. This was troubling, and it is supposed to be. At the end, he is clearly a deluded soul, lost in the abyss he has dug for himself.

This, I think, is the point: there's no such thing as an innocent bystander in life. Ed's fate gives us a clear "WRONG WAY" sign, proving that by acting only in self-interest, a man falls into denial and destructive habits. Ed is a "quiet man," but his choice to withdraw from participating as a husband to his wife and as a friend to his neighbors leads to selfishness and eventually self-destruction. His neighbor, Big Dave, may be a criminal and unfaithful to his wife, but Dave at least shows signs of conscience and even repentance. "Film noir is rarely about heroes," observes Roger Ebert, "but about men of small stature, who are lured out of their timid routines by dreams of wealth or romance." He calls Ed Crane "a man who scarcely exists apart from his transgressions." It's true.

In spite of the lessons we can learn from watching Ed's blindness, his narration does run on too long, stalling the storytelling. The Coens have portra yed moneygrubbers and apathetic antiheroes before (Fargo, The Big Lebowski), but we've never been trapped inside their heads. Fortunately, Roger Deakins' gorgeous, complex black-and-white cinematography give the viewer the sense of seeing a classic that's been kept secret in the vaults for sixty years. Thornton, resembling both Humphrey Bogart and Montgomery Clift, gives a masterful performance, exercising incredible restraint and control, so that Ed's inactivity is a marvel to behold. The role isn't glamorous enough to earn Thornton any awards, but he certainly deserves them.


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