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The Man Who Wasn't There  

Billy Bob Thornton is Ed Crane – a barber, a husband, but most of all a man of very few words. Hardly uttering a sound to anybody, many judge him to have no personality whatsoever. With relatives forgetting his name and a very stoic demeanor, that may well be a valid assessment. However, seeing things from his point of view, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” proves otherwise. What Ed Crane doesn’t say out loud, we get to hear, and it is from this vantage point that we discover there is something more to him than he leads others to believe.

Ed is married to Doris (Frances McDormand). In what turns out to be a rather bizarre relationship, we don’t quite understand the dynamics of the two. Being a rather lavish and sophisticated woman, exactly what she sees in Ed is never revealed to us. It is as if they both just woke up one day married to one another, and just silently and reluctantly accepted their situation. Their entire marriage is suspect, and it is his conviction of her infidelity that gets the story rolling.

Ed hatches up a plan to blackmail her lover and boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini), but when things don’t go as he planned, Ed faces his own dilemma. Which is better – to be a nobody or a dead body?

There is no doubt that “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is one of the best films to come from the Coen brothers. Combining a gorgeous black and white cinematography and a very taut narrative, the movie is reminiscent of those 1940’s film noirs with the Humphrey Bogarts and what not. Underneath all that good old-fashioned Americana lies something insidious and dark. The actors are also to be commended, especially Billy Bob Thornton, who gave an excellent subdued performance. Playing a rather complex character, being both the victim and the perpetrator, Thornton creates a sinister yet sympathetic individual. Come Oscar nomination time, his name will be mentioned. As for the supporting cast (McDormand, Gandolfini and Scarlett Johansson – who played a young girl befriended by Ed Crane), they add to the film’s remarkable presence.

Having said all that, about halfway through the film, I was ready to applaud it as the best film of the year, but alas, the second half proved to be not as taut and compelling as the first.

“The Man Who Wasn’t There” tries to probe a bit deeper into matters, and it doesn’t quite get to the bottom of things. There is an inexplicable attempt to equate Ed Crane to being “soulless”, and that’s what I had the most trouble with. Was Ed “not there” because he has no “soul”? I found this hard to accept because he is not as villainous as something like that would imply. Yes, he is guilty of wrongdoing, but let’s not forget the fact that he was the victim initially. There is also this other issue with the idea of “modern man”, but this too is not quite established effectively through the rest of the film.

Nevertheless, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is still an excellent example of good storytelling and filmmaking. I am not usually a die-hard fan of the Coen brothers, but this is one of their best films.

Film is Rated R for a scene of violence. Running time is 116 minutes.

3 1/2 out of 5

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