I’m not sure I’d call The Man Who Wasn’t There one of the best efforts from the Coen brothers. It’s a hard film to latch onto, what with Billy Bob Thornton’s quiet and inscrutable central performance, its markedly hushed tone, and the dryly crisp way it’s presented to us. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is as undeniable as ever—the chiaroscuro! the pinpoint precision of each frame and angle!—and I had no idea this was originally supposed to be in colour. But it’s polished almost to a fault for me. Modern techniques cannot recapture the grittiness of the noirs of old, no matter how well the essence can be recreated. That grit gave film noir its distinctiveness, the imperfection of the film lending it an added sense of danger, as though the celluloid would combust at any given moment. The old noirs were heightened affairs, as dirty and seedy-looking as their ethics could be. The Man Who Wasn’t There is a cobweb of circumstances that backfire—a tale of crime located within that moral grey area but framed too pristinely. It’s not really neo-noir, either, because it’s so decidedly a throwback.
On its own terms, though, the film possesses touches of greatness, such as the lovely juxtapositions between the Beethoven piano sonatas and the interiority of our laconic antihero. Thornton doesn’t say very much (aside from his voiceovers), yet Ed Crane still feels real and true. One can picture Everymen like him, keeping to themselves while doing their jobs. Keeping out of the way, while at the same time being embroiled in events bigger than they are. The rest of the cast is wonderful and varied, with the likes of Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Jon Polito, Tony Shalhoub and Scarlett Johansson shining in the background. Then again, when have the Coens attracted subpar ensembles? It’s almost unthinkable.
The ending of this is also its greatest strength. There’s nothing remarkable about the circumstances, as karma always manages to win the day with films of this type. But there’s a serenity about it which, coupled with Thornton’s final monologue, is more potent than anything that comes before. It left me wishing that the film had exercised the same potency from the start, for if it had, I might have forgiven its cleanliness. No matter. A lesser effort from the Coens is still miles better than 80% of what we see in theatres nowadays, right?