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The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

  Directed by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Starring: James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Billy Bob Thornton
Links: The Man Who Wasn't There on the IMDb, Official site, Buy the Soundtrack, Buy on DVD, Buy on Video
Genre: Drama

This movie gets: 8.67 (3 ratings) Ranking: Ranked equal 28th of 187 movies (2 ratings minimum; see full chart)

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) is also mentioned in andy-j's review of Ghost World (2001) and em_fiction's review of Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003).

"The Coens win again" - a review by em_fiction

The most wonderful thing about Joel and Ethan is their continual aim to make something new and different. What's even more wonderful is that every film always seems to be a winner. They've tackled a crime thriller (Fargo (1996)), numerous laugh-out-loud comedies (Raising Arizona (1987), The Big Lebowski (1998), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)), a gangster flick (Miller's Crossing (1990)) and just recently, a romantic comedy (Intolerable Cruelty (2003)). In The Man Who Wasn't There, the two-headed director explores the film-noir genre.

It's 1950s America. Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a barber. He's a quiet man — stiff, humourless and introverted. His wife Doris (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with his friend, Dave (James Gandolfini). Ed knows, but being so lethargic and emotionless, he doesn't even care. Ed meets a shady customer who convinces him to get in on a business proposition which requires ten grand. Ed decides to exploit the affair between Doris and Dave — he anonymously blackmails Dave to get the money. That goes as well as planned, but then everything else goes terribly wrong.

I pretty much agree with everything Paul had to say about this film — The Man Who Wasn't There is an original, well paced, well acted, and very stylish film-noir (or neo-noir, since technically the film-noir period ended in 1958) done in an extremely effective black-and-white with the typical dark, mysterious and poetic narration from our lead character.

What struck me about this film is that it reminded me of the videogame, Max Payne. Well, even though one is about a barber and the other is about an ex-cop. Oh, and also, one's a tale of revenge while the other is about deception. And one's set in present times while the other is set in the fifties. And one has shitloads of guns while the other has virtually no weapons (except for sharp barber tools). Oh yes, and one's in colour and one's in black-and-white. Oh, and one's a film while the other is a videogame. Alright, you're probably thinking "What the hell do they have to do with each other?" Well, they're both the same genre (post-1958 film-noir/neo-noir/film-noir homage/blah blah). And they both have a depressed man in the leading role narrating a depressing story. And they both succeed in being absolutely awesome.

What I loved most is the creepy film-noir touch to the film. The pace is slow (but in a good way) and things don't happen too rapidly — they just sort of glide around Ed while he tells us the story from his (extremely well written) noir narration. Billy Bob Thornton has just officially scored a hat-trick from me (Sling Blade (1996), Bad Santa (2003) and now this). He really can act. And I'd like to mention that Scarlett Johansson has an amusing role as Birdy, a strange piano-playing teenager who shows 'interest' in Ed, but causes an awkward misadventure.

Yep, this is definitely one to keep your eye out for during your next visit to the video store.

em_fiction gives this movie 9 out of 10.
Review last updated on Mon 19 Jan 2004

"Another Instant Masterpiece From The Coens" - a review by mino

No, The Man Who Wasn't There isn't some new remake of the age-old "invisible man" plotline: it is, in fact, the new film from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (of Fargo (1996) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) fame). Haven't heard anything about it? No surprises there. Despite the almost-guaranteed cult status this film will gain purely by virtue of its makers, there has been almost no publicity surrounding its release (on Boxing Day). In fact, at least one Coen Brothers fan of my acquaintance didn't even know the film existed until they saw it.

Anyway, when seeing a Coen movie, you can be sure of two things: that it will be totally different to anything they've done before (or that anyone has done before), and that it will be a great piece of filmmaking. The Coens haven't yet made a bad movie, as far as I'm concerned — and The Man is no exception.

Sure enough, The Man is in a very different style to their previous works. A fairly gritty film noir-type work (the whole movie is in black-and-white for added effect), it is perhaps closest to O Brother, but that's just because it's about laid-back country-bumpkin types. The Man is set in the 1950s, and revolves around Ed, a small-town barber, expertly played by Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade (1996)).

Ed is a man of few words, preferring instead to watch what goes on around him as he does his thing. That is, until he begins to suspect that his wife Doris (Frances McDormand, one of the few Coen regulars in this film) is having an affair with a colleague (the excellent James Gandolfini, of Sopranos fame). His growing suspicions, along with a chance encounter with a travelling "entrepreneur" turn his life upside-down.

Like much of the Coen's work, there is plenty of humour to be found in the movie: but like, say, Fargo, you almost always feel guilty for laughing at the (very) black comedy. There is perhaps a bit more of an "edge" to this movie in particular, though, particularly as the film draws to a close: towards the end, the laughs seem to become a bit muted due to the grim nature of the tale — but they are still there.

Some might think The Man a little slow — a few people walked out on the screening I saw, complaining at the pace — but I would have to disagree. It's so easy (and common) to come out of a movie these days and find yourself complaining that it was too short, skimming over important details (Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001)) or that is was too long, with not nearly enough plot to fill the running time (A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)). The Man, however, is beautifully paced. It's not action-filled by any means — though there is plenty of action — but it doesn't drag, either, and is perhaps best described as a "leisurely" film; something the Coens do very well.

While Coen scriptwriting is always brilliant, there really is one star of this show. If you weren't convinced beforehand, you'll come out of The Man knowing for sure that, fruitcake or not in real life, Billy Bob Thornton really can act. In fact, there's a bit Oscar talk for BB for this role — and let's face it, unless he pashes his sister after winning, he'll never be quite as bad as Angelina Jolie.

For any fans of the Coens, The Man is simply a must-see: and even if you're not, it's one of the most thoughtful films you will see come out of Hollywood any time soon. As a long-time fan of Joel & Ethan Coen's work, I give it a 9: for those new to their style, it might be a little bit harder to see the charm — but you might just become a convert.

mino gives this movie 9 out of 10.
Review created on Wed 19 Dec 2001

Movie review statistics

Ratings given without reviews:

Number of reviews: 2
Number of ratings: 3
Average rating: 8.67
Lowest rating: 8 (by pearly)
Highest rating: 9 (by em_fiction, mino)
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