In my mind, there are two filmmakers currently working who consistently make good/great, intelligent films in a variety of genres that are always of the highest quality. One of those people is Steven Soderbergh. From his first film, a little independent film about modern relationships called “sex, lies & videotape” to a film about a boy during the depression in Kansas City, “King of The Hill” (one of the most underrated films ever) to “The Limey”, “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic”, each film has raised the bar on his own ability further revealing his ability as a filmmaker. The other is the Coen Brothers. The Coen Brothers have primarily concentrated on comedies, often the hardest genre to pull off, but their comedies have ranged wildly in tone and pitch. They have also created some of the most memorable dramas of the last few decades. I would put forth that no other filmmaker, working consistently, has created such a diverse, technically superior library of films since Billy Wilder. Their first film, “Blood Simple” was a great evocation of the classic film noir, filmed in color, set in Texas. It took the genre to new heights. They followed this film with “Raising Arizona”, a brilliant updating of the screwball comedy, “Miller’s Crossing”, a great gangster film set in the 30s (also one of the most overlooked films ever), “Fargo”, a comedy- mystery with a pregnant cop as the hero, “The Big Lebowski”, a completely different comedy from their other efforts and “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, a great mix of mythology, blue grass music and 30s prison films. Both Soderbergh and the Coen Brothers have consistently improved their skills and storytelling mastery, a scary prospect when they both started at such a high level.
The Coen Brothers are different from Soderbergh in that some of their films take a while to sink in, for the viewer to recognize the eccentricities of the film. “The Big Lebowski” was like this for me. Only on the third screening, did I begin to appreciate it. Most of their films have earned cult status and fans of their films repeatedly watch them.
Another aspect of their films that is very consistent is the level of technical expertise. Working with people on a number of projects, they have clearly formed working relationships with these key people that serve to enhance each film. Each of their films is a tribute to a certain genre or type of filmmaking. When you watch a Coen Brothers film it is very easy to see what they are trying to pay homage to because they usually get every detail right. “Miller’s Crossing” captured the world of 30s gangsters in such a way that I believed Gabriel Byrne’s character was a mobster. “Blood Simple” was an early evocation of Noir that used color as the classic Noir’s used shadow. “Raising Arizona” is simply one of the best screwball comedies to be made in a long time. Everything is off-kilter and out-of-whack. “O Brother Where Art Thou?” used shades of sepia and yellow to give the film an old, weathered look, much like an old hymnal. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” continues this trend of technical excellence.
Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a barber in a small shop in Santa Rosa, California. He is the second chair in a shop owned by his brother-in-law, Frank (Michael Badalucco). Frank talks and talks and talks causing Ed to further tune out a life he isn’t happy with. His wife, Doris (Frances McDormand) is the accountant at Nirdlinger’s Department Store and works for Big Dave (James Gandolfini). Ed suspects that Doris and Big Dave are having an affair but doesn’t really have a reason to do anything about it. Until he is presented with a business opportunity. Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) gets a haircut and talks about his business idea. Dry Cleaning. He has the idea; he just needs the capital. He just needs $10,000. His former investor backed out leaving him holding the bag. Ed now has a reason to do something about the affair.
Joel and Ethan Cohen have created a modern masterpiece of film Noir. Filmed in color (at the insistence of the studio), but processed in black and white, the film’s look is lush, rich, shadowy and simply perfect. Evocative of such Noir classics as “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Double Indemnity”, the film evokes the late 40s in a small town down to the smallest detail. Joel and Ethan write their films and Ethan produces them while Joel directs. From the moment we watch the beginning credits cast a shadow on a barber pole, we realize we are in for a treat.
They have created a series of characters that combine all of the best elements of the Noir film and have added a dose of black humor. Ed Crane is your typical Noir anti-hero. Unhappy with his life, Crane almost never smiles and almost always has a cigarette in his mouth. His perfect hair cut and dour clothes are evocative of how serious he takes his job and how depressed he is with his life. The fact that he doesn’t get mad at Doris when he realizes he is having an affair is also perfect for the character. Doris, as played by Frances McDormand, is also perfect. Quiet, in a way, but pushy also, she is clearly more interested in other pursuits than her marriage. Gandolfini is also great as Big Dave, a character reminiscent of many Noir characters. As the Coen Brothers have created a sort of tribute, each character embodies many elements of famous characters from other films, but they are played more realistically than they might have during the 40s and 50s. Each of the characters is funny, but also has a little touch of reality. Tony Shalhoub is very memorable as the slick lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider. Richard Jenkins steals his few scenes as a local lawyer by the name of Walter Abundas. Scarlett Johansson plays Birdy Abundas, a local piano prodigy.
The cinematography by Roger Deakins (who has worked on a few Coen Brothers’ films) is outstanding. Always conceived as a black and white film, USA Films reportedly insisted that the film be shot on color film for foreign territories. The prints in the US will be black and white and we are luckier for it. The film has a lush quality that comes from the era, but it also comes from the shadows and the attention to detail. The Crane’s house is filled with shadows that ripple and move providing a sort of prison for their feelings and emotions. When Ed visits Nirdlinger’s at night, the department store takes on a completely menacing look as he walks through the shadowy, mannequin filled interior. A scene in a prison interrogation room is simply beautiful as Shalhoub’s character walks back and forth in a blinding ray of light, the light broken by the bars of the small round window. This is a film that a film student or aficionado will love.
The score by Carter Burwell (also a frequent Coen Brother’s collaborator) uses selections from classical piano, played on one piano, to set the right mood. Tied into the story, the single finger plucking at the Beethoven helps to create an air that is, at times, lush and musical, and other times menacing.
As the story progresses, the comedy becomes more infrequent as the Noir and drama elements take over. This doesn’t mean that the strange characters and situations, trademarks of a Coen Brothers’ film, are abandoned. When one of the characters gets into a car wreck, we hear a bit of voiceover over a shot of a field, then a hubcap comes sailing into the frame which morphs into something else, which is further tied into the film at a later point. Two cops show up who seem to have a problem communicating with their suspects and what they have to say. All of these different elements help to create a very rich film that will amuse the viewer. It will also require repeat viewings to pick up all of the details.
“The Man Who Wasn’t There” is a film that I will definitely see again, not because I didn’t get certain elements, but because I loved it so much and want to experience it on the big screen before I buy the DVD (which will hopefully be loaded with extras).