We gave it a B+
It takes a very intense actor to seize an audience by appearing to do almost nothing. In The Man Who Wasn’t There, the succulently retro, vintage-Hollywood-goes-bizarro film noir by Joel and Ethan Coen, Billy Bob Thornton plays a wormy, soft-spoken loser named Ed — a drone of quiet desperation — who works in a barbershop in the sleepy town of Santa Rosa, Calif., in 1949.
Ed is married to a department store bookkeeper (Frances McDormand) who doesn’t give much of a damn about him, and he drifts through his days at the barbershop in a state of glum serenity, using his scissors and electric razor to shear the coifs of 12-year-old boys into shapes that look like prototypes for atomic-age weapon design.
Thornton plays most of his scenes staring straight ahead, without a flicker of obvious emotion, and he murmurs his schemes, defeats, and desires to us in a voice-over narration that puts the dead back in deadpan. Yet it’s impossible to take your eyes off him. Thornton’s face, set off by a thatch of wiry receding hair, is thinner, more violently drawn, than ever before, and his complexion, rendered in the film’s gorgeous palette of satiny black and white (the luscious cinematography is by Roger Deakins), has acquired a dramatic greasepaint waxiness, as if he’s been eating nothing but gray food. The only things fully alive in that face are its huge, glaring orbs, which work on you the way a hypnotist’s do, and also a pair of sculpted lips so severely pursed they make him look like a morose carp. He could be Edward G. Robinson reincarnated in the body of Don Knotts.
Virtually every image in ”The Man Who Wasn’t There” — a rotating barber’s pole, an upscale department store gleaming in the midnight darkness, crowds of citizens sauntering along a quaint downtown street — has a stately composed dreaminess, as if lost in the pop-culture past. The exception is Thornton’s face, which pierces the movie with its incongruous, taunting challenge of dismay. The Coens, taking off from the work of James M. Cain and other hardboiled fictions, as well as from the countless films (”Double Indemnity,” etc.) inspired by them, craft a plot that’s a sleazy mo-rass of chicanery, blackmail, and murder, then send their caper shooting through glimmers of things far weirder, like ”Lolita” lust and ”Roswell.” Ed’s barbershop rituals, as staged by director Joel Coen, take on the aura of something faintly otherworldly; the images of falling hair and freshly sculpted flattops seem to signal a new American style and mood as it came into being. ”The Man Who Wasn’t There” is the Coens’ cheeky mythological vision of the moment when the ’40s morphed into the ’50s — that is, when the shadow of the postwar era gave way to the eerie ”clean” light of suburbia, the twin forces of technology and conformity leaving the world homogenized on the surface yet, just below, stranger and more tempting than it had been before. Ed, silently alienated but itching for something more, is the new American hollow man, the ghost-cog in the machine.
Attempting to rescue himself from oblivion, he gets suckered into a deal by a shady traveling entrepreneur (Jon Polito) with a hideous toupee who wants $10,000 to start up a dry-cleaning business — a scam the audience sees through a lot quicker than Ed does. Thornton, in films like ”Sling Blade” and ”A Simple Plan,” has specialized in playing dimly ineffectual, passive-aggressive simpletons, and here, too, he creates a superficially mild and damaged outsider who nurses a secret reservoir of walled-in violence. After figuring out that his wife is having an affair with her boss, Ed decides to raise the 10 grand by blackmailing the wife’s lover, a department store magnate played by James Gandolfini in full brooding bully mode. Suddenly, Ed’s pulling the strings, but is he at the center of the movie or, as the title suggests, is he the hole at its center? That’s the Coens’ wryly teasing riddle.
”The Man Who Wasn’t There” starts out as a shadow-world puzzle thriller of low crime gone spectacularly wrong. At moments, the movie is very funny, especially when the delectable ham Tony Shalhoub shows up as a fancy defense attorney whose dazzling legal skill is a direct outgrowth of his egomaniacal indifference. Even then, the tale grips us on a twist-of-fate level. Unlike ”Blood Simple” or ”Fargo,” however (but like, say, ”Barton Fink”), ”The Man Who Wasn’t There” isn’t content to stick to the genre conventions it sets up. Instead, it sprawls and mutates into one of the Coens’ elaborate gizmoid yarns.
Ed becomes fixated on a local teenage girl (Scarlett Johansson), whom he dreams of turning into a professional piano maestro. The relationship is tinged with an erotic undercurrent, but as long as Ed exhibits a desperate appetite, however misguided, the movie clicks along compellingly. During a crucial car ride, though, it slips off the tracks. As the events grow surreal and metaphorical, Ed turns out to be more of a prude than we thought, and he loses his beady-eyed urgency and hunger — the primal drive of the film noir sap. ”The Man Who Wasn’t There” marks a return to form for the Coens after the flat-footed Okie high jinks of ”O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” but they’re still too eager to seal their vision with an absurdist shrug. Ed’s identity all but melts away, and it’s hard to say whether that’s his tragedy or whether it’s because the Coens never quite believed in him in the first place.