After O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I thought I was prepared to follow the Coen brothers anywhere. Now, I wonder. They've always been an uneven writing-directing team, although we critics can't seem to agree on which movies were good and which were bad. Personally, I loved The Hudsucker Proxy and hated The Big Lebowski, but that's just me. Still, I find it hard to believe that too many people will be swept away by The Man Who Wasn't There, a retro-noir that stars Billy Bob Thornton as a guy who, for whatever reasons, has locked the doors, turned out the lights and shut off the gas. I'm referring to his personality. To say that Thornton's Ed makes Humphrey Bogart look like Russell Simmons is to leave open the possibility that Ed, if checked out by a doctor, would register a pulse. Like the marquee says, the guy isn't there.
"Yeah, I worked in a barber shop," Thornton says in a tired voice-over, "but I never considered myself a barber." It's a funny line ' a poke in the ribs of hard-boiled writers like James Cain, whom the Coens are paying homage to. Thornton's Ed bears the mark of Cain ' "a good-looking down-and-outer who leads the life of a vagrant and a rogue," as Edmund Wilson once described the typical Cain "hero" in an essay called "The Boys in the Back Room." But, come to find out, Ed has aspirations, and they can be summed up in one word: dry-cleaning. Sold a bill of goods by a traveling salesman (the splendiferously toupeed Jon Polito) moving through town, Ed needs $10,000 to invest in this revolutionary technique, and he knows just how to get it: blackmail the man his wife's been having an affair with.
Those two hucksters are played by James Gandolfini and Frances McDormand (weirdly cast as a femme fatale), neither of whom leaves much of an impression, but leaving an impression may not be at the top of the list for a movie called The Man Who Wasn't There. Instead, I think we're supposed to soak up the dark, dank atmosphere ' late-'40s, a sleepy town in California, everything rendered in inky blacks and silvery grays. The Coens shot the movie on color negative film, then had it printed in black-and-white, and the result is a slightly new shade of film noir. And, especially early on, Ed's barbershop is so lovingly photographed that you almost lose yourself in the tiny filaments of hair as they float toward the tile floor. Even the clippers and comb in Ed's smock pocket take on an iconic luster ' from hair to eternity.
But there simply isn't enough going on in The Man Who Wasn't There; the movie itself is barely there. Not that the Coens don't come up with lots of plot twists, one for each curve along the Pacific Highway. But there's no forward momentum, no sense of urgency, and we're not quite sure what to make of these people. When Tony Shalhoub shows up as a big-city lawyer let loose on a small-town jury, it's a relief to sit back and enjoy his shyster shenanigans. ("I litigate, I do not capitulate," he says, evoking Johnnie Cochran, of all people.) Unfortunately, we spend the vast majority of our time with Thornton while he pursues the fine art of non-acting. You have to admire the Coens for taking such risks with the audience's sympathies, but you don't have to admire the movie itself.
For me, the high point was the movie's very first shot, when we're invited to stare dumbly at a barber's pole. Those swirling stripes are mesmerizing.