November 18, 2004

A downer of a masterpiece from the Coen brothers

For a self-styled fan of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, I've seen precious few of them: Fargo and The Ladykillers during their run in the theatres, and O Brother, Where Art Thou? after its home-video release. (I'm not counting The Big Lebowski in this, since it made so little impression on me at the time that I've all but forgotten what it was even about. Tastes change.)

But last week I found a copy of their 2001 followup to O Brother, the neo-noir black comedy The Man Who Wasn't There. But is it comedy? It's certainly ironic, but it has more in common with tragedy than comedy. It's definitely a change of pace from its lighthearted predecessor, and the most pessimistic of all the Coen brothers' films that I've seen.

Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade) is a barber. Specifically, he's the second barber at his brother-in-law's shop in Santa Rosa, California in 1949. He married into the job when he married into the family, and he prefers just to get on with the haircutting while his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) chats up the customers. Crane's wife Doris (Frances McDormand, Fargo) works for a local department store. Like Crane, her boss "Big Dave" (James "Tony Soprano" Gandolfini) married into his work. Crane suspects that Doris and Big Dave are having an affair.

When a grifter comes into the barber shop for a haircut and mentions that he is trying to raise "venture capital" for a new technology called "dry cleaning," Crane is interested, but he doesn't have the $10,000 he needs to buy in. So he anonymously tries to blackmail Big Dave for it, threatening to expose his affair with Doris.

Things start to go terribly wrong when Big Dave encounters the venture capitalist himself. Realizing he was duped, he attacks Crane, who accidentally kills him in self-defense. The police arrest Doris for murder; as she has been cooking the store's books, she is thought to have means, motive, and opportunity. And from here, things really go south.

Apparently originally filmed on colour stock, The Man Who Wasn't There was then printed for viewing in glorious black and white. I've heard that the colour version of the film is available in some markets (in fact a few theatres originally got some colour reels by mistake). Why bother? The black-and-white print is beautiful. The contrasts between light and shadow are more vivid than they would have been if filmed on black-and-white stock - if "vividness" is a property one can properly ascribe to the medium. The cinematography of Roger Deakin doesn't hurt either. In one jail scene he shoots directly into the light coming through the bars in the window, creating the illusion of solid blocks of light and dark. The man knows how to film light.

The cast in this film is uniformly excellent. Especially noteworthy are Tony Shalhoub, a fine character actor who plays Doris' eccentric, Clarence Darrow-like defense attorney Freddy Riedenschneider with restraint even if the character sometimes seems a little over-the-top; and up-and-comer Scarlett Johansson as "Birdy" Abundas, the technically proficient but untalented teenage pianist whom Crane takes an interest in managing. But this is Thornton's movie through and through, as he plays the taciturn barber and deadpans his way through the voice-over that drones constantly throughout this film. This is one of his best performances, second only to the simple-minded Karl Childers in 1996's Sling Blade, and that is such a different rôle that it is difficult to top.

The pacing of The Man Who Wasn't There is bound to turn off viewers who need stunts, explosions, or other kinds of eye candy to keep their attention. But for more patient, serious viewers, it's wonderfully laconic. On the other hand, the script could have used a little more work. Big Dave's wife Ann believes Doris is innocent of his murder - because she thinks he was the victim of a government UFO cover-up. Thus there is a conspiracy theory/UFO supblot to the story that doesn't really seem to fit. I'm sure it made sense in the minds of the screenwriters, but I don't think it makes it to the minds of the viewers.

The technical and artistic excellence of this film underscores Francis A. Schaeffer's recurring comments about making good art about bad subjects. The Man Who Wasn't There is too bleak. It's exstentialism bordering on nihilism. The story is a tragedy, in the sense that an otherwise decent person is brought to ruin thanks to a tragic choice and forces greater than himself. Shakespeare's play Titus Adronicus is a similar example. However, Andronicus is a war hero whose downfall comes as the result of his backing the wrong contender for the throne of Rome. He had the power to change things. Crane, on the other hand, is a barber, a cipher - "the man who wasn't there." No one pays him any attention, and when he does try to make his mark in the world - first by investing in the dry-cleaning franchise, then by trying to nurture Birdy's musical talent - the results are disastrous. The Coens' 1995 hit Fargo had the same basic plot line: a crime committed for money has unintended consequences that spiral out of control. But the earlier film, like other Coen films - cf. The Ladykillers - assumed a moral order to the world in which the perpetrator reaps what he sows: "[B]e sure your sin will find you out" (Num. 32:23). In The Man Who Wasn't There, Ed Crane tells the truth in an attempt to clear Doris, but Riedenschneider finds it too farfetched. He prefers his own defense, a bit of existentialist casuistry involving Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. In the end Crane does get his comeuppance, but ironically it's for the wrong sin. So there's no catharsis - no purgation of his guilt - and thus no hope of redemption. Of all the Coen productions I have seen thus far, this is the most starkly pessimistic.

Given the more optimistic tenor of much of the rest of their work, however, I'm halfway inclined to offer the Coens the benefit of the doubt on this one and assume they were playing with the conventions of the film noir genre. Rent this one and enjoy the fine craftsmanship, but don't swallow the bleak worldview.

Update: Actually, with this movie I think I've hit Coen Critical Mass. Stay tuned: in the new year I will be viewing all the Coens' works in sequence.