Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Michael Badalucco, Jon Polito
Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Since this is a Coens movie, you can only expect one outcome. That is for me to decalre it as a triumph and encourage you to go see it. Well, yes I will. Once again brothers Joel and Ethan, who share co-writing credits but a single direction credit for Joel, have delivered a finely crafted and stylish comic thriller.
A difficult plot to dissect without spoiling, it starts with Ed Crane (Thornton – “Sling Blade”, “Bandits”, “Primary Colours”, “Armageddon”), a quiet chain-smoking barber describing a typical day in his uneventful life. As talkative as Crane is silent, his brother-in-law Frank (Badalucco – TVs “The Practice”) shares hair-cutting duties in their family barbers business. Ed’s passive nature sees him badgered into a dead-end marriage with Frank’s sister Doris (McDormand – Oscar winner for “Fargo”, “Almost Famous”, “Primal Fear”). This leads to Doris having an affair with Ed’s best friend, Big Dave (Gandolfini – TVs “The Sopranos”), something which Ed suspects, but decides to let go.
When quirky entrepreneur, Creighton Tolliver (Polito – “Stuart Little”, “The Big Lebowski”, “The Crow”), rambles on about a new business venture that he is seeking a $10,000 investment for, Ed sees it as an opportunity to take a little risk and step outside of his ordinary life. However, his methods in obtaining the money lead him into an unthinkable chain-reaction of events that end up destroying not only his life, but the lives of everyone around him.
The beauty about the Coen’s complex writing is the ability it has to enable subtle actions lead to events that seemed inconceivable before they happened. In this respect, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” bears a resemblance to the superb “Fargo”, even if the style is far removed from the Oscar nominated movie. Filmed entirely in black-and-white, the craggy and withdrawn features of Thornton in the lead role are about as perfect a piece of casting as you could imagine. Thornton manages to deliver a host of reactions and personality characteristics through the bare minimum of expressions. Humorously compare this to the expressionless Harrison Ford who manages to look like a piece of cardboard in most performances.
Coen directs with a nonchalant lack of vigour although the story moves at a steady pace. Close-up shots of the main protagonists tell a story that might take a number of lines of dialogue in other circumstances, and the lack of urgency is to the film-makers credit.
It’s not just writing and directing where the Coen’s succeed consistently, it is also their ability to cast suitably rather than hire names that will put bums on seats. Micahel Badalucco is hilarious as big-kid, Frank, while Polito excels as the money-hungry entrepreneur. Tony Shalhoub (“Spy Kids”, “Galaxy Quest”, “A Civil Action”, “Primary Colours”) steals numerous scenes as heartless, fast-talking lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider and the amusing good-cop/good-cop double act of Christopher Kriesa and Brian Haley is notable for the few scenes they pop into.
This movie will have you thinking for days. It is a triumph, and you should go see it. But I told you that a good few paragraphs ago.