Posts Tagged ‘Barton Fink’

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The Man Who Wasn’t There by Joel & Ethan Coen

March 29, 2010

If you’re like Claude and me and have a love for black and white film, then you will probably enjoy The Man Who Wasn’t There, a 2001 film by the Coen Brothers. The Coen Brothers have quite a filmography, many of which are favorites of mine, and this one ranks pretty high on the list. The Man Who Wasn’t There is a throwback to film noir and femme fatales and movies where the lead character narrates throughout the film. Billy Bob Thornton is haunting on many fronts: his highly-made up appearance, his stone-cold face which never smiles throughout the film, and his slow, deliberate pacing. Thornton plays a barber who finds himself, quite by happenstance, caught up in a scheme with a man (Jon Polito) who wants to bring dry cleaning to the world. He learns that his wife, (played brilliantly by Frances McDormand, a Coen favorite and probably her best role for them) has been having an affair with his sister’s husband (James Gandolfini). So to obtain the money to invest in the dry cleaning business, he sets about blackmailing his wife’s lover, to dastardly ends for all involved.

The Coens have a real knack for shot selection, lighting, and strong character development. I usually go either way (this movie is great for cinematography, that movie is great for acting) but The Man Who Wasn’t There has it all – not unlike another great Coen movie, The Hudsucker Proxy. I believe both these films are lesser known than their blockbusters such as No Country for Old Men and O Brother Where Art Thou?, but nonetheless, well worth a screening. I saw a lot of Barton Fink in this film too, which is my personal favorite Coen Brothers movie. One thing I did not notice – in many Coen Brothers movies, there seems to be a running thread about shoes or feet. This didn’t appear that I could see in The Man Who Wasn’t There – it seems the obsession was about hair and shaving, since, after all, Thornton’s character is a barber. That’s one of the interesting things about Coen Brothers movies – there are these little touches that reappear throughout each film, and make you wonder what they mean. The Coens themselves have gone on record that there is no underlying meaning in any of what we might perceive as symbolism in any of their films, but I think they are being a bit evasive about that.

For black-and-white film lovers, The Man Who Wasn’t There has one of the best ending shots I’ve ever seen in black and white. Coen films are rich with set pieces, set design, lighting tricks and unusual shots, which make for incredibly interesting viewing. They also have marvelous use of contrast of the black and white hues through such clever means as costuming, furniture, lamps, everyday objects. This one, like others mentioned, also has the advantage of stand-out performances by some of the Coen’s oft-used actors – particularly McDormand and Polito (lead in Miller’s Crossing) and brings more talent to the film with the use of Thornton, and the actress who plays Gandolfini’s wife, one of the most stark and haunting faces I’ve ever seen. This is not unusual for Coen films – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad performance in one of their films, and they rank among my favorites. I’m glad Claude asked me to watch this one, as I had not seen it before, and it gave me a chance to make comparisons to other Coen films.

My favorites stand in this order: Barton Fink; The Big Lebowski; Burn After Reading; The Hudsucker Proxy now tied with The Man Who Wasn’t There;; Raising Arizona; O Brother Where Art Thou? I have not seen the entire catalogue of their films…yet….but I’m sure I will. What are your favorites?