The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Rating: D+

Dir: Joel Coen
Star: Billy-Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Tony Shalhoub

Not exactly a bundle of laughs, this. Ed (Thornton) is a barber whose efforts at blackmail lead into a tangled maze of affairs, murder, jail and extra-terrestrials. Yes, ET’s – when the Coens do their usual, chucking a screwball subplot into the middle, it just sticks out like a sore thumb in the midst of all the gloom and doom. There isn’t really anyone to sympathise with here; Ed’s wife (McDormand) is an alcoholic slut, while he himself is amazingly taciturn, probably smoking more cigarettes than he says sentences. It’s probably a mistake to put what is basically an uninteresting guy at the center, and you long for a trademark quirky character to appear. But when Tony Shalhoub’s lawyer turns up, great fun as he is to watch, he too seems to be from an entirely different movie.

Roger Deakins’ b/w cinematography, however, is great, and does a great job of capturing the early post-war era in which the film is set. Thornton, who moves the plot along mostly in voice-over, is lit so that every wrinkle on his forehead leaps out like a chasm, and you can’t really argue with his (non-)performance, or anyone else’s for that matter. It’s the script – surprisingly, in a Joel & Ethan film – which creaks at the seams; stop me if I’m wrong, but they did have fingerprinting in 1949, didn’t they? The uncomfortable silence suggests this obvious point would have wrecked the wrongful accusations at the film’s core. Should I also point out California has never used the electric chair? Place alongside Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing in the Coen failure file.