The Man Who Wasn't There

(Joel Coen, USA, 2001)


One of my favourite quotations in the annals of movie commentary is attributed to filmmaker and teacher Jean-Pierre Gorin: "Film noir has got film culture hooked the way the Papuans got hooked on the cargo cults."

That remark was made circa 1975, and the noir cult still shows no sign of abating. Gorin was not disparaging such classics as Detour (1945), Gilda (1946) and Touch of Evil (1958), or the most unusual and inventive modern variations on the form like David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997).

His target, rather, was the facile, superficial constellation of noir elements that inform so much film and television today – black and white cinematography, leggy femme fatale, laconic anti-hero, jazz soundtrack, voice-over narration and doom-laden plots of desire, deceit and revenge.

The latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen at least arranges such standard elements with elegance and taste. In a typically postmodern mélange that borrows a bit of everything – especially Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) and Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – the Coens give us the sombre, fatalistic tale of their nowhere man, Ed (Billy Bob Thornton).

Ed is a North Californian barber who says little and dreams less. Faced with the indiscretions of his no-nonsense wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), he is stirred not by anger or jealousy but a faint, hopeful glimmer of escape – a plan that might change his life.

To tell more of the plot is pointless. Beyond delivering a neat story that clicks together with mechanical precision, the Coens, as usual, enjoy themselves by conjuring a fictional world from a handful of incongruous ingredients – memories of old movies, an oddity from popular history (the UFO craze of the '40s) and a smidgin of philosophy (the "uncertainty principle", also the inspiration for a Manoel de Oliveira film) that doubles as a wry reflection on cinema's own illusions.

The Coens often seem, these days, like cinema's smartest and smarmiest undergraduates. The emotions and characters seem half-baked, merely a pretext for some stunningly executed filmic effects. Far more so than in Amélie (2001) there is no heart, no spontaneity in their work. All that is left is the smug satisfaction of a hyper-controlling artistry – to the extent that even the actors, however excellent their performances, register as angular bits of the décor.

This style extends to the themes of the piece. The Coens spread around some predictably quaint, ersatz references – to Kafka, existentialism, Robert Musil's novel The Man Without Qualities. Some effectively meditative, haunting moments – making expert use of slow-motion and voice-over – aspire to the philosophical level of Terrence Malick's films. But the Coens are too determined to spell all the motifs out and tie them up in pretty ribbons.

Only one idea escapes this laboured, exhibitionistic virtuosity – silence. In a rare and generous gesture of understatement, the Coens allow their viewers to trace for themselves the significance of those moments in the film where words fail the characters – when things are too big, or too difficult, to be spoken about in everyday language.

If they could trust such mysterious suggestiveness more often and more fully, these prodigiously talented filmmakers might finally be able to leave behind their large and increasingly cumbersome bag of easy tricks.

MORE Coens: Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Intolerable Cruelty

© Adrian Martin December 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search