There's a fine line between homage and out-and-out theft. The filmmaking Coen Brothers skillfully demonstrate the difference with "The Man Who Wasn't There," a Hitchcockian-esque thriller that delves into Alfred's psychosexual arena with mixed results.
The very talented siblings certainly evoke the specter of Hitchcock with their story of a dour barber who finds himself caught in a downward spiral of blackmail, murder and mayhem because he tries to get ahead in the world. But something vital is missing. Although unpredictable and unconventional, this foray into neo-nihilistic noir is ultimately uninvolving.
Tellingly set in small-town Santa Rosa, Calif., (the same setting Sir Alfred fans will remember for the master's "Shadow of a Doubt") in the post-WWII boom year of 1949, the movie opens with all the enticing elements of film noir intact. But it's the manner in which the Coens have chosen to let the story unfold that seems to leach the energy, heat and tension out of the action. We're largely told what's going on rather than being allowed to witness it. I'm not much of a fan of prolonged voice-over narration, though I know it's a requisite trademark of film noir. But in this film, our taciturn barber thinks out loud far too much even for the genre.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, an everyday Everyman stuck in a joyless existence of sameness. A closed-mouth barber who cuts hair alongside his chatterbox of a brother-in-law (Michael Badalucco), his life takes a dramatic change when a stranger (Jon Polito) enters the barbershop late one evening. Introducing himself as Creighton Tolliver, he spins a tale of missed opportunity about the next big thing, a sure-fire investment in something called dry cleaning. Tolliver came wooing a man with 10 grand to invest, but the deal fell through.
Sitting in his chair at home or shaving his wife's (Frances McDormand) legs or captured in silhouette, pensively smoking, Ed can't get Tolliver or dry cleaning out of his mind. We know this because Ed tells us again and again. Before long, we watch as a blackmail note is typed out on screen, warning Ed's wife's married boss (James Gandolfini) that he must shell out $10,000 or the town will know all about his affair with Doris Crane (McDormand).
As befits the noir genre, the remainder of "The Man Who Wasn't There" reveals the fateful ways Ed's decision affects the people around him. Big Dave (Gandolfini) pays up, fearful that if he doesn't, not only will his wife kick him out, he'll also lose his lucrative job running the upscale department store inherited by his wife.
Things turn nasty when Big Dave discovers that his blackmailer is not Tolliver but Ed. The confrontation between the two distinctly different men makes up the movie's sole action scene.
The downward spiral picks up speed when, in a nifty twist, it's Doris who's arrested and charged with Big Dave's murder. His brother-in-law signs over the barbershop to the bank to raise money for Doris' defense, which includes hiring legal big gun Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub in a scene-stealing performance). Without revealing too much, suffice it to say that the deaths don't stop with Big Dave, and we do get to see something of an emotional awakening in Ed.
While "The Man Who Wasn't There" fitfully holds our attention, there are moments when you'll wish Ed would stop talking, or the Coens would just get on with things. The acting, however, is top-notch, especially the performances of Polito and Shalhoub. Whether dead-on dour from Thornton or joyless but sexy from McDormand, the Coens' actors get each character's inertia just right. Adding a great deal to the movie's feeling of lost souls and dead-end lives is the lighting and cinematography of Roger Deakins, who perhaps more than the actors or the Coens' story line captures the essence of noir while giving Hitchcock his due.
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