Shiny Shelf

The Man Who Wasn’t There

By Eddie Robson on 12 November 2003

Criminally overlooked at the Oscars, ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ sees Joel and Ethan Coen remain incredibly consistent in quality terms whilst retaining the capacity to surprise. With every picture, they conquer new ground and master new tricks. If anything, they’re getting better.

Although it’s shot in black-and-white and set in the 1940s, the Coens have refuted claims that this is their ‘noir’ picture. True: with its Chandlereque knotted plot, ‘The Big Lebowski’ tended more in that direction. As far as ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ is concerned, comparisons to ‘The Twilight Zone’ ring true in terms of atmosphere and the plot is the Coens’ own brand of lurid thriller with larger-than-life characters.

Billy Bob Thorton’s chain-smoking barber is a remarkable figure: as he becomes embroiled first in a blackmail plot and subsequently in a murder plot, his every action comes as a complete surprise because he shows no emotion whatsoever. That’s the amazing trick that the Coens pull off in ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’: the central character is impenetrable, yet remains sympathetic.

The single Oscar nomination it received was Best Cinematography, and it’s true that the film does look wonderful: black-and-white can make almost anything look elegant, but it helps if the composition is as well-structured as it is here. It’s easy to crow about the Coens as a self-sufficient filmmaking unit, but their regular cinematographer, Roger Deakins, deserves much of the credit for ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ – as does Carter Burwell, whose piano-led score fills in much of the space left by Thornton’s consciously muted performance.

The Coens’ best film? Quite possibly. ‘The Big Lebowski’ may be more lovable, but ‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’ is more accomplished and, in its final lines, more affecting than anything else in their canon. I refuse to believe that they can get any better, since this is practically perfect, but I’d love them to prove me wrong.

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By Eddie Robson

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