One of the most wonderful elements of the Coen Brothers pictures is that you really don't know what to expect. There's a certain, underlying sly sense of humor that runs through most of their films, but there's also been more serious and offbeat efforts. "The Man Who Wasn't There" will not likely be regarded by many as the best picture from the duo, but I certainly think it's quite close to that high level that has been reached before in "Fargo" and "Blood Simple".
The film stars Billy Bob Thornton as Ed Crane, a small-town barber who goes unnoticed by many - most of whom even need to be reminded of his name. Nearly silent and kept, by choice, at arm's length from those around him, Thornton's underplayed performance is masterful. I don't think I've ever seen performance so quiet that is, at the same time, so riveting. Ed's married to Doris (Joel Coen's wife, Francis McDormand), who he suspects is cheating on him with Dave (James Gandolfini of "The Sopranos"), who owns the store that Doris works at. He handles this situation with extreme calm and, as per usual, with a smoke.
Soon after, a gentleman talks his way into the barbershop for a late-afternoon haircut. In the middle of his work, Ed gets a pitch from the stranger about what could be the biggest innovation in years - dry cleaning. All he needs to be a partner is the sum of $10,000 dollars. Ed proceeds to blackmail Dave, which, as with most things that the main character does in Coen Brothers movies - proceeds to not work out in his favor - extremely so. Dave turns up murdered, but is the right person in jail for the crime? The film piles up suprises and, although it moves with considerable slowness, the film had me engaged for almost the entire running time. There's a particular stretch in the late middle where Tony Shalhoub enters the film as ace lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider that suddenly sparks the film's energy up a notch, at least for a little while. Shalhoub's character is not a major one, but he hits every line so perfectly and has such sharp timing that I was greatly impressed. If he's not at least nominated for a supporting actor award, I'd be stunned.
The film is shot in black & white by the Coen's usual cinematographer, Roger Deakins. I've long considered Deakins one of the best in the business, but he's truly crafted a visual masterpiece with "Man". The biggest compliment that I can pay to his work is that I could have sat through this film without sound and just study the film's lighting and composition. Helping to complete the experience is Carter Burwell's magnificent score.
Again, although I mentioned this before, the only problem I had with the film - and it's a slight one - is that the film goes a...little...too...long. I easily went along with the slow pace for the great majority of the picture, but it reached a point near the end where I felt as if I'd like for things to be wrapped up soon. A subplot revolving around young pianist Birdy (Scarlett Johansson) also doesn't really work that well.
But, the performances are exceptional, with Thornton and Shalhoub as the definite highlights. "The Man Who Wasn't There" is certainly different from the tone and style of previous efforts from the Coen Brothers, but there's a lot of marvelous elements to the picture that makes it well worth viewing - it goes a little past it's borders, but there's so much to like that I didn't really mind.