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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Comedy > Man Who Wasn't There

The Man Who Wasn’t There


Picture: B+     Sound: B     Extras: A     Film: A-



Hands down, The Man Who Wasn’t There is The Coen Brothers’ best film thus far.  Although they have churned out many memorable films in the past such as Blood Simple, Fargo, and Miller’s Crossing, this is where all of their talent and capabilities comes together in a very tight, neat package that is extraordinary on so many levels.  It was refreshing to see the brothers take a step back and do a drama after working on so many odd ball comedies in the past like Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and the very disappointing O’ Brother Where Art Thou? 


Perhaps what makes a film like this so sincere is the language and the presentation of that.  Although the film was shot in 35mm color, it was then digitally processed by Kodak’s Cinesite labs into a type of black and white that is not the classical silver type, but one that tries to emulate that look.  This was done by the film’s great cameraman Roger Deakins, (A.S.C., B.S.C.), who won for best cinematography that same year for his work on the terrible film A Beautiful Mind, starring that Aussie with attitude Russell Crowe.  Deakins, who used the same digital work to manipulate the colors on O’ Brother Where Art Thou?, should have won for his amazing work on The Man Who Wasn’t There instead.  This film certainly should have been more recognized on many other levels as well.  This film is not just black and white without a point; it is gloriously lit with a Noir-like direction.  One cannot help but think of Billy Bob as a good candidate for Humphrey Bogart, who The Coens and Deakins obviously have in mind as a model for the character.


Billy Bob Thornton has become even more respected as an actor and his performance here is sheer brilliance.  He talks about as much in this picture as Dave in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Although he says very little his emotions or lack of emotions are read simply through his movements and facial expressions, which work much better since the film is monochrome.  Color would have never worked for this film, as black and white reduces the film to the very basics, allowing for the performance to show through much stronger.


What makes certain films great is their ability to do more with less and this is yet another example of how less is more.  The acting, the script, the sets, the whole package is delivered and a lot of it seems unimportant, but its relevance is subtle, yet essential.  We meet Ed Crane a man who feels that he matters very little to the world around him.  He has a wife played by the brilliant Frances McDormand that apparently knows very little about him even though they appear to be a match.  Ed is a barber who eventually leads to blackmail and revenge as a means of escape from his utterly dull life, but oddly enough no matter who is after him he is the man who was not there. 


Although this film went rather unnoticed in 2001, the now-defunct theatrical arm of USA Entertainment brought this film to DVD, with well-deserved attention making this one of the best DVD’s in terms of the value of the extras and the presentation both visually & audibly.  For starters the film is in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is anamorphically enhanced.  The picture quality is exceptionally good giving merit to the beautiful black and white image.  There is a very wide range of gray scale in the picture.  The blacks are never too dark nor the whites too bright.  This is a perfect DVD to calibrate your TV to if you have not done so yet. 


Audio-wise the film contains a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix, which is as with most dramas very front heavy in terms of dialogue there is a large amount of voice over from the Ed Crane character, which is prominently in the center channel.  Directional effects that do occur are split into the surrounds, but for the most part the only time that the left or right surround channels become active is during the soundtrack, which contains variations of Beethoven.  This is probably one of the best scores of 2001 as well. 


Often times commentary tracks can be literally useless, but for this film it is absolutely awesome.  The Coen Brothers are extremely fun to listen to and Billy Bob is hysterical.  They do talk about some of the more technical aspects of the film, but never take themselves too seriously.  There is a ‘Making Of’ feature on the DVD as well, which is rather brief and could have been more extensive.  Also included are deleted scenes and behind the scenes photos.  The best portion of the supplements aside from the commentary is the interview with Roger Deakins about his influences, and his choice to shoot the film this way and capture the look of the old 40’s and 50’s films.  This is the sixth film that Deakins has shot for the Coen’s, comfortably succeeding Barry Sonnenfeld, who went on to become a commercially successful director on films like Get Shorty and the Men In Black franchise.  Deakins, who has also worked with Martin Scorsese, is able to capture their vision and put the language to the screen visually. 


Although this film was not a hit for the Brothers, as much as (and as far as) some of their other works.  It is certainly a better film and I hope they choose to do more projects like this in the near future.  With cinematic literacy on the decline, special effects becoming commonplace and the centerpiece for the future of a bleaker-looking cinema, there are directors out there that will go down with the ship.  The Coens are certainly among them.



- Nate Goss


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