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the pathetic caverns - movies by title - The Man Who Wasn't There

eclectic reviews and opinions

The Man Who Wasn't There

2001, D: Joel Coen; S: Joel & Ethan Coen

The Man Who Wasn't There offers plenty of both what's good and what's bad about the films of Joel and Ethan Coen; it all adds up to yet another movie that is more "interesting" than it is "successful," but certainly worthwhile for the brothers' many fans and it's heartening to see film-makers who continue to try to challenge themselves and their audience, when I'm sure it would be all too easy to churn out Fargo Liebowksi Part III.

On the good side: it's gorgeous. This may be the most visually stunning Coen brothers film yet. Longtime Coens collaborator Richard Deakins again handles the cinematography, a rich catalog of starkly lit black and white contrast studies. Sometimes the noir-homages are a little too much; when hapless Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) walks across diagonal steps into an inky impenetrable shadow while actually talking about how he is vanishing from the world, it's a little hard not to feel bludgeoned by the symbolism. But other scenes are gorgeous, brilliantly lit, and even slyly allusive within the film itself. While slick lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) briefs his clients on the legal implications of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, two shadows stripe his chest like prison bars, but the harsh vertical quality of the light also evokes an operating theater and perhaps even suggests the eerie glow of atomic furnaces.

The plot skeleton is pure classic noir, and in territory well-worked by the Coens in films like Blood Simple and Fargo; small moral failings leading irrevocably down unpleasant paths; small-minded people whose schemes and scams are as small as they are. Ashes are never flicked from the ends of the cigarettes and the dialog is heavily salted with slurs like "wop" and "nip," so that we know we're in early postwar times, before any notions like "cultural sensitivity" entered the lexicon. The small town scenes are all suitably iconic maybe a little too iconic, like other Coen brothers films, it's plagued by too many caricatures and too few characters.

On the bad side: Thornton is just a little too good as the man who isn't there; Ed Crane doesn't talk, think or even feel much; he has to qualify almost any utterance with an "I guess." The echoes of Merseault, the blank, unfeeling narrator of Camus' Stranger, are unmistakable, (the high-school sort of interpretation, every-man as no-man, not the existentialist intepretation of Myth of Sisyphus). Frances McDormand is wasted as Crane's drunk wife; she's out cold through most of the film.

And classic noir films like The Postman Always Rings Twice were driven by passions, usually dark ones lust, revenge, greed; this one is driven "impelled" might be a beter word by the absence of passion. Once events start their long slide down the big steep hill, their course is stately, too easily predicted, with too few surprises, and a few too many opportunities to gawk at the gorgeous scenery.

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