Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Man Who Wasn't There: Grade A


The Man Who Wasn’t There (2002)

Billy Bob Thornton, Francis McDormand, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson, Richard Jenkins, Tony Shaloub; Writers and Directors Joel and Ethan Coen.

This movie came within a hair’s breadth of qualifying as one of the most perfect movies ever made, right up there with Casablanca, North By Northwest, and Citizen Kane. Only the bloated, dithering ending spoiled it. If it had ended when BBT’s wife (McDormand) died, it would have been perfect, but that would have been too “noir” apparently, so an entirely new theme was introduced at the 11th hour, which seems to be from a different movie, in order to engineer a morally “pat” ending. Too bad.

BBT is a small town barber in 1949 California. We see him cut hair, but it is in the voiceover narration that we understand his character. He is laconic, a man of few words, reminiscent of the narrator in Camus’ Novel, The Stranger. Normally I don’t like voiceover but it works in this case because it is not a substitute for good, filmic storytelling. BBT meets a fly-by-night entrepreneur who needs a $10K investment to establish an innovative new business, “dry-cleaning.” To get the money, BBT commits a crime and the rest of the story is about the consequences of that act. The pace is slow, but not saggy, and the humor is sardonic.

The film is shot in glorious black-and-white, with sharp high-contrast, and loads of creative lighting and camera angles. You really do get the sense of time and place, although I think that sense is derived from watching old Bogart movies, not because the era actually looked like that. Still, it is wonderful. The mystery tale is well-told and the characters are convincing. McDormand gives a very fine performance, but Thornton is mesmerizing. That guy really knows how to smoke a cigarette! Gandolfini (before he blimped out), looks good and acts competently. Johansson is extremely cute but her role is just eye candy. The score is mostly excerpts from Beethoven piano sonatas, especially numbers 8 and 32, which give me the chills. So this stylistic thriller is completely successful as an homage, yet at the same time original, but comes up just shy of perfect.

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