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. Also wonderful is the film's production design by Dennis Gassner and costume design by Mary Zophries (both also worked on the Coen's "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?"). Carter Burwell (another longtime Coen collaborator)'s score also sets the tone perfectly.
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.
VIDEO: USA Films presents "The Man Who Wasn't There" in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. I had higher-than-normal expectations for this presentation, given the fact that I feel Roger Deakins' black and white cinematography is nothing short of a masterpiece (I still feel it was outrageous that he didn't win an Oscar). This effort from USA Films is not flawless, but it's still certainly excellent, nonetheless. Sharpness and detail are excellent throughout, as the black and white images remained crisp and well-defined, even into the shadows.
I had very few issues with the presentation. Slight grain was present theatrically and remains slightly visible at times here, as well. Certainly, what minimal grain there was remained hardly noticable or added to the look and feel of the picture. The print used was beautiful, as no specks, marks or scratches were present. A one or two little traces of edge enhancement and pixelation were seen, but these didn't present major concerns.
SOUND: I certainly wasn't expecting very much from the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack and the audio neither surpassed or fell short of my expectations. The soundtrack seemed to fold-up into mono for a good deal of the film, only lightly opening up now and then, mainly for Carter Burwell's beautiful score. Still, this worked for the movie - the subdued soundtrack was appropriate for the material and right for the tone of the film. Audio quality remained superb throughout the film, as dialogue and Thornton's narration remained clear and natural, while Burwell's score sounded rich and crisp.
MENUS: USA Films has provided simple, but elegant animated main and sub-menus, mainly using clips from the film quite well as backgrounds.
Commentary: This is the first commentary from writer/directors Joel and Ethan Coen, who are joined by actor Billy Bob Thornton, who has also never participated in a commentary track. Fans of the Coens have been hoping that the duo would record a commentary track for their other movies, most will likely find this so entertaining that fans will hope that the Coens will revisit their earlier films. This track is not particularly structured, but instead seems like the trio are simply stating whatever occurs to them while the scenes unfold. While this could have made for a bit of a mess of a discussion, the three are able to offer a very nice mix of often-hilarious jokes about what's currently happening in the movie and some tidbits about the production. A few pauses of silence are heard on occasion, but this is an often fun and informative commentary worth listening to.
Interview With Roger Deakins: Deakins, who I consider one of the best cinematographers working today, sits down here for a 45-minute interview. I wanted to have Deakins participate on a commentary track for this film, but this is certainly the next best thing, as the cinematographer covers a wide range of topics, mainly regarding "The Man Who Wasn't There". Discussion of what films may have been a partial influence on the look of this film are chatted about, as well as some of the technical details of the film and some of the steps along the way in deciding to shoot in black and white. Deakins was also the cinematographer on last year's "Beautiful Mind".
Deleted Scenes: 5 deleted scenes are presented in slightly rough 1.85:1 widescreen. Actually, there is one full "scene"; the other 4 bits are simply very quick snippets (3 of which are deleted "hairstyles").
Ads: The film's trailer and 2 TV spots.
Making Of: This is a pretty basic 16 1/2 minute featurette that mainly offers interviews with the cast and crew, who briefly discuss their characters and feelings about the film.
Also: Behind-The-Scenes photogallery, filmographies.
Final Thoughts: I greatly enjoyed "The Man Who Wasn't There" when I saw it in the theater, but I actually felt it played even better and moved a bit faster the second time around on DVD. It's one of the Coen Brothers' finest works in a career of marvelous films - a movie that may not have found a major audience in theaters, but deserves to now that it's on DVD. The DVD is the best ever for a Coen Brothers film - it's a very nice special edition, complete with the first ever commentary from the directors and terrific image quality. Highly recommended.