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With: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Michael Badalucco, Jon Polito, Katherine Borowitz, Scarlett Johansson, Richard Jenkins, Tony Shalhoub
Written by: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Directed by: Joel Coen
MPAA Rating: R for a scene of violence
Running Time: 116
Date: 05/13/2001

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Barber of Big Chill

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

We've seen movies about the dead returning to life as zombies (Night of the Living Dead), and movies about ghosts walking around on Earth (Ghost). But here's a movie about a guy named Ed Crane, who's still alive and just doesn't know how to live.

Ed, masterfully played by Billy Bob Thornton, is a barber living in a small town in the late 40s. "I never considered myself a barber," he says in a rumbling monotone voiceover. He also says, "I wasn't much for parties," and "I'm not big on entertaining." He can't even bring himself to care when he realizes that his wife Doris (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini), the manager of Nirdlinger's department store.

Nevertheless, when a greasy butterball salesman (Jon Polito) rolls into town and begins looking for startup capital for a dry cleaning company, Ed can't help wondering, "is this opportunity? The real McCoy?" He nonchalantly blackmails Big Dave for the money. But everything goes wrong and Big Dave ends up dead -- with Doris framed for his murder.

Ed and his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco), the owner of the barber shop, put up the money to hire a whirlwind lawyer named Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub). Meanwhile, Ed finds solace in visiting his friend Walter's (Richard Jenkins') place and listening to his young teen daughter Birdy (Scarlett Johansson, also in Ghost World) play the piano.

As written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, the film uses stark, beautiful black-and-white photography (by Roger Deakins) to illustrate Ed's lack of life. Ed walks down the streets of his town, seemingly moving at a different speed than his neighbors -- no one looking at him, no one seeing him. Ed barely speaks and never eats, but smokes like a fiend. ("Coffin nails," I couldn't help thinking.) Even his marriage to poor Doris seems like a convenience for two people who don't really know how to relate to anyone else.

But the most telling sign of all comes when Ed takes an interest in Birdy's musical talent and takes her to see a specialist (Adam Alexi-Malle) in San Francisco. The specialist tells him that while she possesses the basic skills to play, she lacks the passion to be great. The fact that Ed latches onto this passionless music as his own salvation is the ultimate clincher of his "death."

The Coens have insisted in interviews that they wanted to tell a James M. Cain-type pulp story with The Man Who Wasn't There. But it has as much to do with Cain as O Brother, Where Art Thou? had to do with Homer's The Odyssey. Indeed, with a hit film on their hands (the joyous O Brother), the Coens realized they could make any film they wanted this time around, and so they conjured up the stark, difficult The Man Who Wasn't There, taking a 180-degree turn from that last film.

Which is not to say that even though it's preoccupied with death, The Man Who Wasn't There isn't funny or hugely entertaining. It is, thanks to its brilliant performances by everyone concerned, especially Shalhoub and Thornton. It bursts with ideas, from Freddy Riedenschneider's theories on what's real and what's not, to government conspiracies to thoughts on where people's hair comes from and how it just keeps on growing.

Finally, the brothers' refined, precise form of filmmaking seems intact, moving everything at the perfect pace and revealing only what they need to reveal.

Only when the film brings in the UFO at the end (yes, that's right) does it slip and reveal a sly grin. The Man Who Wasn't There stands as another masterful Coen brothers effort and ranks as one of the year's best films.

USA Entertainment released a great DVD filled with extras, including a commentary track by the Coen brothers and Thornton. There's a making-of featurette, an interview with cinematographer Deakins, deleted scenes, photos, and more. If you check out the "TV spot" section of the DVD, you'll see me quoted: "One of the year's best films." I was very excited to see that!

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