James Gandolfini, Billy Bob Thornton, ...
Credit: The Man Who Wasn't There

Some American critics who saw it at Cannes thought it moved as fast as hair growing. But most British and European reviewers gushed over the Ethan Coens’ elliptical tale of a meditative small-town barber (Billy Bob Thornton) who gets in way over his puffily coiffed head when he attempts a ”Double Indemnity”-style blackmail scheme involving his wife (Frances McDormand), her boss (James Gandolfini), and a shifty venture capitalist (Jon Polito).

The balding Thornton wore a salt-and-pepper toupee inspired by an old picture of Raymond Burr and trained at a real barbershop so he could perform his on-camera cuts realistically. ”Curly hair is easier to cut than straight hair,” he says. ”You see the mistakes in straight hair.” McDormand had some tonsorial missteps of her own.

”Originally, I was going to have a brunet wig,” reports the actress, who won an Oscar for her performance in ”Fargo,” also directed by hubby Joel Coen. ”[It] ended up looking like this animal sitting on my head.” McDormand instead became ”a platinum blonde, with a manufactured look” that she says worked perfectly because it suggested, on multiple levels, how much her character wanted to escape her dark Italian roots.

Meanwhile, the Coen brothers had to fight to keep the picture in black and white. Though indie USA Films promised that theatrical prints would be monochromatic, the filmmakers were contractually required — even with a low $20 million budget — to shoot on a color negative, so that some eventual syndication and video copies could be processed in color. ”John Boorman did it with ‘The General,”’ says Joel Coen, who shared this year’s best-director prize at Cannes with another Yank iconoclast, ”Mulholland Drive”’s David Lynch. ”Distributors worry that audiences are just not gonna buy tickets, especially kids. And there may be some legitimacy to that, as unfortunate as it is.”

The Man Who Wasn't There
  • Movie
  • 116 minutes