There‘s a scene, not quite midway through The Man Who Wasn’t There, in which a small-town barber stares at his sleeping wife in the silence of the couple‘s bedroom. She lies there in shadow, a mystery to him after years of marriage, unaware of his presence. It is the first time in this new Coen brothers film that we know something our haircutting narrator doesn’t, for as the barber watches his spouse with a faint expression of optimism, the woman‘s slumbering form tells us those expectations are not likely to be fulfilled any time soon. We don’t pity the poor dope. His ignorance is better than bliss — it allows him a belief in the possibilities of tomorrow.
It‘s a small moment that nevertheless establishes how serious the Coens are about making a film that does more than pay homage to its principal inspiration — pulp novelist James M. Cain — or have fun with noir conventions. Until this point the film has tended as much toward the spoofery of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid as toward the fatalistic brio of Double Indemnity, but from here on we feel director Joel and his co-writer and producer Ethan are secretly telling a story about contemporary life with its hollow optimism, financial anxieties and brittle marriages. It is, if nothing else, a noir fable for our times.
From their first feature, Blood Simple, through Miller‘s Crossing and Barton Fink, the Coens have shown an affection for noirish themes. The Man Who Wasn’t There gets the full treatment, as the barber, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), finds his life in the Santa Rosa of 1949 torn apart by centrifugal forces of murder and blackmail, all because he takes a step beyond an ill-defined code of Puritan mores — first, by ignoring his wife‘s bad behavior, then by trying to make a buck outside the bounds of the Protestant work ethic. Ed’s spiral toward ruin begins with his early acknowledgment of suspicions about his wife Doris‘ fidelity. Doris (Frances McDormand), an angry alcoholic, is so oblivious to Ed that she sees nothing wrong with inviting her paramour and his wife (James Gandolfini and Katherine Borowitz) to dinner. Ed is so stoically passive that he never looks into the matter or passes judgment on Doris — he is a man whose only passion appears to be his Chesterfields. With an almost crocodilian inertia, he cuts hair day in, day out, silently enduring the chatter spewed out by his barbershop partner Frank (Michael Badalucco): ”Says here the Russians got the A-bomb and there’s nothing we can do about it — howdaya like them apples?“
A chance encounter with an itinerant huckster (a deliciously sleazy Jon Polito) leads Ed to uncharacteristically gamble on a dicey business venture, a detour that follows a classic noir trajectory: The more Ed departs from his routine or tries to better himself, the worse his situation becomes; the worse things get, the more improbable his lucky breaks. The Coens leave no trope unturned — a get-rich scheme gone awry, a vain lawyer and an angelic girl who seems to toss our cornered hero a rope out of hell. But it‘s Ed Crane’s deadpan voice-over –a laconic commentary that owes as much to Raymond Carver as Raymond Chandler — that fixes The Man Who Wasn‘t There deep in the noir canon, and it is Thornton’s portrayal of Crane that gives the film its fatal charm. ”We go to church once a week — usually Tuesday,“ he intones, referring to Doris‘ obsession with church bingo. Nearly unrecognizable in his barber’s smock and Squaresville haircut, Thornton converses in a sepulchral drawl that doesn‘t as much tell as exhale one man’s doomed attempt to connect with the living.
Sooner or later nearly every filmmaker dons a fedora and shoots a period script filled with grifters, private dicks and hard-boiled patois. Part of the allure is genre nostalgia and part of it is hubris — directors trying to make the same movies of yesteryear, ”only better.“ The presumption is that new technologies and the absence of censorship will give these neo-noirs the unvarnished honesty their predecessors supposedly lacked. Still, as careful an eye to period detail as these pictures frequently display, they‘re invariably suffocated by their goateed makers’ contemporary attitudes. Like science-fiction remakes, neo-noirs have become a disappointing genre often bloated by high fashion, egregious pyrotechnics and psychobabble, to say nothing of showboating film references. Detour and Try and Get Me were so much the lean, mean products of their times that they would have seemed artificial had they been remade even a few years afterward, which is why for every Chinatown there are two Jakes, for every L.A. Confidential a dozen Mulholland Falls.
The Coens almost perfectly mimic their chosen era; the film, shot in color but processed in black and white, has the visual texture of the period down pat. Yet for all the obvious attention they‘ve paid to wardrobe and hairstyles, they allow the story to unfold matter-of-factly. We’re never clubbed into remembering how accurate the film‘s look and sound are — Badalucco’s reference to the Russian bomb is about the only allusion to then-current events, and a tune like ”Moonlight in Vermont“ never intrudes beyond a background whisper. Similarly, the Coens allude to noir classics even as they pull the rug from under our expectations. Here, Santa Rosa‘s big department store is called Nirdlinger’s, one of a couple of direct references to Double Indemnity; a teenage piano student with a talent for fellatio seems like a clever composite of Double Indemnity‘s Lola and The Postman Always Rings Twice’s Cora, yet meets a fate that falls just short of what we presumed about them. (Naturally, there are the trademark Coen touches of nuttiness — a UFO theme threads in and out of the story, and we‘re witness to recurring close-ups of hairlines from Ed’s point of view that suggest he is a Sisyphus with scissors.)
Even when the script is willfully wrong — locating Santa Rosa as being ”up“ from Sacramento and ”down“ from San Francisco, or presenting California‘s method of execution as the electric chair instead of the gas chamber — the results are more playful than distracting. Far beyond their customary knowing winks and nods aimed at aficionados, the Coens have resurrected a hardscrabble California of wooden porches and gravel driveways, of rolling, oak-wreathed hills and one-lane roads, and of a restless people whose meager dreams are wrecked the moment money, sex or a bottle get in the way. Never has the past seemed so familiar.