We gave it an A-
Hip and modernist as they are, the Coen brothers have always seemed like a throwback to an earlier Hollywood era. More than half their films — including last year’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? -— have been 20th-century period pieces, and film noir has been an influence on their work ever since their dazzling 1984 debut, Blood Simple. As fate would have it, their most noir-influenced period piece yet, The Man Who Wasn’t There, is also one of their best films.
Billy Bob Thornton brings a Robert Mitchum-esque cool to the role of Ed Crane, a post-WWII California barber who gets mixed up with blackmail and murder, thanks to his floozy wife (Frances McDormand). Thornton’s expert underplaying provides perfect counterpoint to the over-the-top performances of Coen cronies Jon Polito and the should-have-been-nominated Tony Shalhoub. (At least Roger Deakins’ magnificent black-and-white cinematography received Academy attention.) In the end, The Man Who Wasn’t There isn’t about anything; it’s an art-for-art-houses’-sake flick. But when the artists involved are this talented, who’s complaining? A-