Review by Jack Foley
HAVING gone as mainstream as they are ever likely to get with O Brother Where Art Thou and The Big Lebowski, the Coen Brothers return to their roots for this oh-so dark black and white comedy about a 'get-rich-quick' scheme that goes awry.
Propelled by a stellar cast, and featuring some outstandingly lush visuals, The Man Who Wasn't There is another essential chapter in the Coens' story which, while too dark and way too slow for many, should delight and impress devotees in equal measure.
Set in Santa Rosa, California, in the '40s, Billy Bob Thornton stars as a disgruntled barber who spies a way out when Jon Polito's sweaty entrepreneur offers him the chance to invest in a new venture - dry cleaning, the way of the future. All he needs is $10,000, which he proceeds to raise by blackmailing his wife's boss (James Gandolfini's Big Dave) by claiming he is having an affair with her.
But what starts out as a simple and even successful plan, soon takes a turn for the worst, and it isn't long before Thornton's Ed Crane finds events spiralling out of his control and he becomes involved in a murder.
For a film packed with so many twists, turns and Coen-esque ironies, you could be forgiven for thinking that The Man Who Wasn't There might set a blistering pace. You would be wrong, however, for the directors have once again crafted a meticulous and deliberately paced thriller which slowly delivers its tongue in cheek pay-offs.
Yet what keeps it fresh and rivetting throughout are the strength of its performances and the sheer quality of its production values. A trademark strong script, packed with subtle exchanges and some outrageous showboating, also helps.
Thornton, displaying a hitherto untapped capacity for the most deadpan of humour, is a revelation as the silent barber who watches helplessly as those around him become embroiled in the events he has set in motion and, almost always, perpetrated, while returning Coen performers such as the ever-impressive Frances McDormand (as Crane's wife), Jon Polito, as the aforementioned entrepreneur, and the delightful Richard Jenkins (as Thornton's laidback friend and lawyer) all make their mark.
But it is Gandolfini who steals the early proceedings, as the hapless Big Dave (great name!) - mixing that familiar anger of Tony Soprano with a softer, more vulnerable side - before giving way to Tony (Galaxy Quest) Shalhoub's arrogant Jewish lawyer, who really walks away with the acting honours.
Shalhoub is coolness personified as the silver-tongued lawyer who would rather dazzle a jury into a confused 'not guilty' verdict than bother with proof, and he really embraces his material to help the movie come alive when he is around.
And if the performances aren't enough to dazzle you, then the look of the proceedings certainly should. The use of black and white represents a major departure for the directors but it works to quite brilliant effect and was achieved by being shot on colour negative but printed in black and white.
As director of photography Roger Deakins points out, the look of the film reflects the era in which it is set but also recognises the fact that this is a new project. Hence, softer light was used, resulting in fewer hard shadows, as were larger light sources. "The light kind of wraps around everything and gives figures and objects a certain fullness of dimension," he adds.
As such, the facial features of almost all of the actors are that much more defined, which only serves to heighten and intensify the performances. Whether it is perceived by audiences as too arty is a risk the film-makers were prepared to take, but it shouldn't sway people from seeing it.
This is a thoughtful, carefully crafted and, above all, intelligent movie which deserves a massive audience. At a time when the independents are in the ascendency, it is another reason for expanding your horizons away from the over-bloated mainstream. The Coens have delivered yet again.