THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE (rated R)

This is the new Coen Brothers' film. It stars Billy Bob Thornton as a barber in Santa Rosa, California, in 1949. It is a film noir.

Directed by Joel Coen
written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
produced by Ethan Coen;
released by USA Films.
Running time: 112 minutes.

WITH:
Billy Bob Thornton (Ed)
Frances McDormand (Doris)
Michael Badalucco (Frank)
James Gandolfini (Big Dave)
Katherine Borowitz (Ann Nirdlinger)
Jon Polito (Creighton Tolliver)
Scarlett Johansson (Birdy Abundas)
Richard Jenkins (Walter Abundas)
Tony Shalhoub (Freddy Riedenschneider).

"What kind of man are you?"

Suffice it to say that the Coen Brothers don't make films that satiate average, slack- jawed, intellectually-malnourished moviegoers. With a repertoire of titles that range from the moodiest of neo-noir to the blackest of black comedy, their body of work is an acquired taste. Their latest opus, The Man Who Wasn't There, does nothing to change this perception, and that's a good thing.

Billy Bob Thornton is apropriately droll as Ed Crane, a barber wbo seemes to regard his work as art. He is a man of few words, whose life seems to follow one long monotonous rhythm -- that is, until his husbandly instinct kicks in, and he comes to believe his doting wife Doris (Frances McDormand, aka Mrs. Joel Coen) is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini). Add to the equation a shady, toupee-wearing character who walks into the barbershop one day, talking about this "revolutionary scheme": dry-cleaning. The man goes by the name of Creighton Tolliver, and in that one instant, he manages to grab Ed's undivded attention.

From this set-up comes forth a chain of events where the bestial nature of man rears its ugly head: blackmail, extortion, murder and deceit become the tools of characters acting out of desparation, placed in precarious situations that pile up with increased frequency.

All of what transpires on-screen is near-flawlessly executed in the hands of the brothers Coen. The production design perfectly evokes 1940's California, while the stark, black-and-white cinematography, courtesy of frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins evokes those old film-noir classics that the film acts as a homage to.

And then there's the human element. Thornton simply is the movie: silent, rarely emotive, and almost always with a cancer stick hanging out of his mouth, he's more than able to draw the viewer in, even as fate stands in front of him, ready to deliver one final, fatal blow. McDormand, who won an Oscar in hubby's Fargo, turns in another solid turn as a woman who becomes a victim of circumstance. Gandolfini's Big Dave is a consummate bullshit artist, but, for a fleeting moment, manages to not only grab the sympathy of Ed, but the viewer as well. One supporting perfomance that deserves mention, and there are many, is Tony Shalhoub's dynamite turn as Freddy Riedenschneider, a high-profile lawyer who speaks fast and acts fast. Like Big Dave, bullshit is his stock and trade, but his bullshit is articulate, evidenced by the hilarious scene where he attempts to invent a motive by utilzing the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

The scope and breadth of the film are so great, that there are characters and scenes that haven't been touched in this w/u. At this moment, yours truly is cracking up, remembering that one great moment where a widow makes her way to the home of a familiar face and espouses her theory on who killed her husband. As of this writing, no other 2001 release can match this one in comic energy, style, and storytelling flair.

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