This week’s film in my Coen Brothers Film Experience is THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE. It was released in 2001, and is two things if it is anything at all. First – it is quite possibly the most beautifully shot film the Coens with fellow cinematographer Roger Deakins have ever created and second, it is unfortunately extremely slow. I’ll say it again, I can appreciate the craftsmanship that the Coen brothers put into each of their films, and in that regard, once again, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE is a home run. What I find difficult to swallow, for my own taste, is the film’s deliberately slow pacing. I can’t not recommend this movie since it is in fact a treat to watch Experiencing the brothers weave a tale their tale of murder, music, and UFOs the way they do is exquisite. I just wish it moved along at a brisker pace.

THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE stars Billy Bob Thorton as a quiet and very reserved barber who’s married to Frances McDormand (by 2001 she had appeared in 6 out of 9 the Coen films). She’s the accountant for the department store owned by James Gandolfini’s in-laws. They also happen to be ‘familiar’ if you know what I mean and this provides the setup for yet another expertly crafted Coen tale. Scarlett Johansson, and Coen Brother return players Jon Polito, Michael Badalucco, and Tony Shalhoub round out the cast.

The casting is excellent. While Billy Bob and Frances McDormand excel in their roles, it really is the supporting cast that kills it. Each of the scenes with Jon Polito or Tony Shalhoub pop with the energy and skill these actors bring to their characters. Polito nails his smarmy entrepreneur character, “The Pansy”. From the moment you see him and he opens his mouth, you can tell there is something that’s just not right about him. The more you see him and Billy Bob’s character interact, the more you begin to loath him. He just oozes disgusting – they way he talks, and smacks his lips when he talks plus the way he goads Billy Bob into doing exactly what he expects. Then there is a scene with him sitting on a hotel room bed and he just comes off like a guy you cannot trust…so well done. When he finally does the wink, it’s the cherry on top of a loathsome character sundae.

Then you have Shalhoub’s fast talking lawyer. Stellar. He does an amazing job delivering the Coen dialogue as the film’s most animated and entertaining screen presence. Case in point:

Not only does that scene spotlight Shalhoub’s talent in this film but it also showcases everything that this movie does really well: lighting, sound, blocking, scripting and the exploration of the Werner Heisenberg’s ‘uncertainty principle’. It’s a fascinating concept: the more you look at something the less you know. If you open something up to examination, and allow different viewpoints to shed light on something, it will invariably change the subject being examined. This is the angle that Shalhoub’s character uses to his advantage in THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE by using it to cast doubt and change perceptions in a courtroom scenario but if you look at this principle using any real world example, it helps prove the concept. I’ll compare it to something I know (albeit slightly off topic): Take Nike for example. The company’s ability to constantly mobilize a public relations and advertizing machine helps maintain the public’s perceptions of the company in a somewhat favorable light and therefore they sell tons of shoes. The fact that they use child labor in third world countries to generate an insane profit barely registers anymore with the consuming public even though there are organizations that stress this fact over and over again. If the perception is that the shoes are cool, that they’ll facilitate athletic performance, and if they are endorsed by a celebrity or attached to a great cause, the company that sells them can’t be that bad can they?

Before I conclude, I’d like to discuss the whole UFO thing. What the heck is that all about? The more I try to figure out what it all means, the more it confuses me…;) Seriously. I’m guessing they included UFOs since they were a topic of discussion in the 40s but how does the existence of them tie in with the rest of the story? It’s all just a bit wacky. I will admit that without the UFO storyline, we’d never get the awesomely creepy scene scene below with Katherine Borowitz:

The BOTTOM LINE: 3/5. All of this to say THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE is not a bad movie at all. It’s just not the kind of movie I could sit through time and time again. It’s certainly worth a watch if only to see the Coen’s try their hand, rather successfully at a black and white 1940’s crime thriller. Everyone brings their A-game…unfortunately it’s just not my cup of tea.

THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE is my least favorite Coen Brothers film to date. It’s going to have to sit at the bottom of my list for now…

4. FARGO (1996)
6. BARTON FINK (1991)
7. BLOOD SIMPLE (1984)

Where does THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE fall on your list of Coen Brothers films? Does the film’s pacing bother you as much as it does me? Do you think John Goodman would’ve done well in James Gandolfini’s role?

Catch next week’s Coen Brothers Film Experience entry on Wednesday, October 5th: INTOLERABLE CRUELTY. Also, don’t forget to JOIN ALONG! “Like” the Coen Brothers Experience Facebook page!

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