"The Man Who Wasn't There"
To get an idea of what to expect with this film you might want to have seen "Fargo". Or, if not that one, perhaps "O Brother, Where Art Thou", "Barton Fink" or any one or more of the very off beat adventures the Coen Brothers have put together from their original, creative dynamic that started in 1984 with "Blood Simple". There isn't an instance of their output that isn't off beat, individual and unexpected from these two filmmakers. And, here, we have their offering for 2001 and, in the sense of something totally new, they don't disappoint.
Operating from an aesthetic as far away from headline news as it's possible to go for a writing-directing team in present day Hollywood, they bring to bear the full fruits of their vision and their always exceptional ensemble of players to a story set in quiet Santa Rita, California in the yesteryear of the forties and printed in the black and white imagery of the period. Our central character is Ed Crane (Billy Bob thornton), a chain smoking barber with a fastidiously cut of hair and manner of life. To say he's a quiet man is to call a planet a rock, giving meaning to the film's title.
He works in the shop for brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco of "The Practice" fame) who finds Ed's laconicism perfectly acceptable. And, he's married to Doris (Frances McDormand) who likes him well enough when she gets him to rub her legs during her bath but who long ago rejected any notion of intimate relations. Instead, she's saved that part of her life for Big Dave (James Gandolfini in another fine characterization), her boss, a well-to-do owner of a local department store. What's wrong with this picture? Well, for one, Ed knows. For another, he doesn't appreciate it. Finally, there's the matter of revenge. He may be quiet... his mild manner may cause him to be thought of as a loser... but he's nobody's plaything.
In film-noirish coincidence, Ed runs into Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), a man whose badly toupeed appearance belies the aggrandizing name, has just missed an opportunity to acquire financing for a promising new venture called "dry cleaning". $10,000 will get the investor in on the groundfloor of this revolutionary new cleaning technique. Ed thinks about it and decides he wants to be that investor. He doesn't have the funds but he promises to get them within the week. How? Well, Big Dave has that kind of money, and Big Dave's been shtupping his wife, so a little blackmail's going to fit his model of justice just fine.
After some major grousing by Big Dave, he forks the money over, Ed makes the investment, and gears are set into motion. Obviously, the motion produced isn't according to plan. The simplicity is shaken when Big Dave learns who is really behind the blackmail. There's a murder. Ed and Doris are eventually implicated and martial the lawyerly skills of big-city mouthpiece Freddy Riedenschneider (a brilliant Tony Shalhoub) who thinks the legal spotlight shines for him.
There's so much more... for which you just should go out and see this excellent piece of filmmaking art. For forerunners of such a genre, see also "Double Indemnity", "Mildred Pierce" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice", all taken from novels by James M. Cain and the inspiration for the Coens to offer a mystery with a loser as the protagonist but taking it in that direction and style that is altogether unique to this creative pair.
If there were an award for achieving films that are works of style and storytelling originality more akin to novels than commercial entertainment, the Coen brothers should be the first recipient of it. But besides working from their own inherent wellspring of ideas, they put actors onto a level rarely previously achieved, providing them opportunities to achieve a new higher platform of their art. Billy Bob Thornton will be remembered for this and not for "Bandits" his film released earlier this year.
Frances McDormand, Mrs Joel Coen in real life, continues her brilliance in this Coen role. Who would think that this 45-year old actress, who was never a vixen anyway, could play the femme fatale without for a moment suggesting any such mundane limitations. In roles written for her by the Coens she simply has no limitations. James Gandolfini's treasure chest of character shadings are here wonderfully utilized. And, Tony Shalhoub has simply never reached such heights of character portraiture as this script and director elevate him to.
It's possible that this piece of work is too good, not showy enough, for attaining oscar stature, but that would only be yet one more artistic injustice. It's a gem of a movie but, alas, may be appreciated by a less than universal audience. If you enjoy unique and exquisite storytelling, outside Hollywood formula imprinting, however, you'll be part of that audience.
Rated L, for Literary standard!