The Man Who Wasn't There

Billy Bob Thornton stars as the barber in a spot of bother in Joel and Ethan Coen’s tale of Very Bad Things.

According to Billy Bob Thornton, he accepted the role of Ed Crane (The Barber) purely on the information that it is a film "about a barber who wants to be in the dry cleaning business." And things certainly seem mundane enough to begin with for this amiable yet incredibly laconic barber with a strangely emotionless marriage and some gently harboured ambitions above his station. Unfortunately for Crane, though, he has been dreamt up as a figure by the Coen’s for this wonderfully all-American neo-noir homage, so some serious dramatic turns on the darker side are to be expected.
One of the greatest aspects to a Coen Brothers’ film is the view through their eyes, their slightly off-key representation of the world we live in, and The Man Who Wasn’t There has this, and other recognisable Coen qualities, to varying degrees. Though there is still the humour intact, this is a much more somber affair than we have come to expect from this talented duo that have a keen eye and heart for a retrospective era.
Coen stalwart, Roger Deakins provides the stunning black and white cinematography that captures the noir shadows to picture-perfection and coupled with Joel Coen’s guarded direction make for some very beautiful composition. Though it isn’t just the look of the film that makes it a success both in its own right and as the more difficult thing of a noir-inspired homage, it’s Joel and Ethan’s co-written story that complements the visuals, too. The Coen’s are great storytellers and The Man Who Wasn’t There is no exception to this rule; the complex plot and customarily superb dialogue has some wonderfully nostalgic inclusions that also tie in nicely with the noir feel. With a subtly detectable air of social unrest that comes from a time of change, the Coen’s find some affectionate means to bring these to the story. Where the typically noir-ish plot takes in some subdued but simmering sexual feeling and murderous intentions (and some non-intentions) there are some gentler Coen idiosyncrasies that capture the innocence of the era; the bizarre otherworldly idea, the incredible but sweetly dubious idea of dry cleaning, and even some philosophy courtesy of the super-talky and cash-driven lawyer, Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) who tells the ill-fated Crane’s about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, whereby the action of watching something may change its very outcome and we may never know truly how things could work out naturally (“even Einstein thinks he’s onto something!”)
But all this wouldn’t make The Man Who Wasn’t There the typically well-rounded effort we’ve come to expect from the Coen’s if it wasn’t for the uncanny casting and great performances, many of whom are make up the usual Coen suspects. But it is Thornton’s performance as the languid Crane which holds the piece together. Thornton’s craggy face seems made to play this man of so many calmly accepted worries and his expressions, along with his presence, are what make up this extraordinary performance, where most of his dialogue lies in the narration of his tale stretched over a pace as unhurried as his tone, from somber beginning to somber end. Though if Heisenberg’s right and we hadn’t witnessed Ed Crane’s sorry story at all things may have worked out differently for him. We may never know.

A beautifully and lovingly crafted film, this is not only one of the Coen’s greatest achievements, but also one of the best films to come out of America in the last few years