The Elegant, Black-and-White "The Man Who Wasn't There" Comes with Sorrowful Mood but Half-Cooked Philosophical Messages

This post is written as part of the series "the films of... Joel Coen and Ethan Coen"

Then Joel Coen and Ethan Coen put something particularly new into his filmography: a black-and-white film. Some may consider it risky, while some other see it as a breakthrough that worths our attention. I think, despite of the black-and-white coloring, "The Man Who Wasn't There" is not really far from the genre that "the two-headed directors" are acknowledged for: a saddening, philosophical story wrapped with crime. Give it an old-fashioned cinematographical touch, put some strange characters, but do it the Coens' way; and you'll get a seemingly noir film that almost lost its charm.

“The Man Who Wasn’t There” was shot in color, but printed in black-and-white. It is all surrounding the story of a heavy-smoking, silence barber called Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), who works in a barbershop with his brother-in-law, Frank (Michael Badalucco), in the late 1950s. His wife, Doris (Frances McDormand) is a cheerful, rather dominating wife, and she might have an affair with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini). One day, Ed is offered by his customer (Jon Polito) to invest in dry cleaning. Seeing that it might be a good opportunity for him, he manages to create a chance in seeking the money for his investment.

When I said "the Coens' way", I meant the way they always put metaphorical, if not whimsical, subtheme in all of their movies. They can innovatively re-create every subject into a movie, be it the simplest story about certain people that eventually makes a storyline (like in "Burn After Reading", review coming up), or the technical matters like cinematography or music (like in this movie). But there is always subtle message; there always is. Now that they try to insert philosophical thoughts to this black-and-white tinted film, the story itself didn't get enough attention.

There is something missing from the formula. I mean, did Joel and Ethan make Roger Deakins recolor this film into a black-and-white for nothing but style, or did they do it because it feels necessary, or even compulsory, for the story and characters to be stylized in such way? I prefer the latter to be the answer, and even though the characters and the mood (supported by melodramatic solo piano playing in background) seem okay to be done that way, I don't think the story itself (plus the subplot—which of course triggers open-ending) looks supportive. Roger Deakins did an outstanding job (some scenes are so gorgeous I can't even wonder whether it will be as gorgeous if it was shot in color as it is in black-and-white), but the story feels so... raw.

It contains too many branches and paths; interesting but not attractive enough to throw the viewers into a discussion as deep as what is offered by the story layers. A barber, business scam, murders, UFO thingy, cigars, trials, narration from the main character, and all the coincidental things that (were pushed hard to) round up into a story that makes sense? There are some aha moments, but as a whole they feel complex yet incomplete.  "The Man Who Wasn't There" got you trapped in the atmosphere of desperation, but—perhaps because, for Coen brothers, story is a bit less important than characters and mood—the plot will just left you hanging unsatisfied.

But don't you underestimate the cast. They played so naturally, so blended in their characters, in this case, that all the beautiful grayscale shots perfectly match. Billy Bob Thornton as the main character had the soul of an anti-hero, with his expression-less face and cigar-smoking mouth, and turned "The Man Who Wasn't There" into a self-titled ode which—at some lines—could fit into everybody's piece of life. He is the one that is responsible for most of the rather-depressing mood that maxes up the half-cooked story—thanks to other supporting characters.

"The Man Who Wasn't There" is an astonishing, remarkable work of visual art that successfully brings down mild atmosphere of sorrow using well-made and well-acted characters, although the attention paid to these aspects seems a bit unbalanced compared with the attention paid to the story (or the subtle messages in it). However it looks, one thing for sure: the auteur brothers are an innovator and a bound-breaker.

 ▲  Outstanding achievement in black-and-white cinematography, mildly depressing mood, well-acted characters
 ▼  The story is raw and didn't perfectly support the overall mood

THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE | COUNTRY USA YEAR 2001 RATING Rated R for a scene of violence RUNTIME 116 min GENRE Crime, Drama CAST Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson WRITER Ethan Coen, Joel Coen DIRECTOR Ethan Coel (uncredited), Joel Coen MORE INFO

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