The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) — Billy Bob Noir

“Me, I don’t talk much… I just cut the hair.”

DnaError’s rating: Smokey moral confusion with gin

DnaError’s review: It was a sweaty night when I decided to rent a movie. I was hoping the movie could distract me from the oppressive night. I didn’t pick out The Man Who Wasn’t There out of any particular love. I just wanted some release. So, imagine my surprise when it turned out to be the best Coen brother’s movie, ever.

TMWWT is a very particular movie. It’s hard to imagine anyone but the Coens doing it. Oh sure, it shares a lot of similarities with a Hitchcock movie, right down to those Northern California towns he loved to film. But everything else: stylized locations, anachronistic slang, odd characters, and dark humor is pure Coen Brothers. TMWWT may be the most Coen-y of all the Coen brothers’ movies. Which may or may not be a good thing, depending.

The movie looks amazing. The shadowy black-and-white cinematography pays for a rental itself. Every post-war Americana note is hit, from deco department stores to “men’s magazines.” For a fan of art deco and the noir movies, every frame of the movie is like manna from heaven.

On one level, the movie is a near perfect mimic of the noir classics, a tight, twisting plot with doomed characters and a big blue-plate special of ennui — touching, pitying, and surreally engaging all at once. On the other level, it’s a deadpan satire of the genre’s convention. This left a bad aftertaste however, the Coens seem impossible playing a movie straight. The little jabs fit well into the plot, but seem to undermine the movie’s deliberate, serious tone. It’s a minor quibble,

TMWWT is of a reminded why I love the Coen brothers. Their stylized realism doesn’t exist in reality or fantasy, but only “in the movies.” Call them cold, but the Coen’s morally conflicted characters and icy deadpan give every movie that indefinable “Barton Finkness” that I adore. TMWWT is the Coens at their most Coen-y. Which may or may not be a good thing, depending.

Didja notice?

  • The scene where the dry cleaner is found dead in the car underwater is a homage to The Night of the Hunter
  • Big Dave Brewster’s store “Nirdlinger’s” is a reference to the female character in James M. Cain’s book “Double Indemnity”. The County Examiner’s name is Diedrickson, which is the same character’s name in the film version.
  • The name of Tony Shalhoub’s character – Riedenschneider – is a homage to the character played by Sam Jaffe in The Asphalt Jungle
  • During the scene where Ed visit’s his wife in prison, a photograph of a circle is seen on the table in front of him – a link both to Circle Films, which was the company behind the Coen brothers in their earlier films, and The Hudsucker Proxy’s circle gag.
  • The driving scenes in the movie were filmed in the old-fashioned way by filming a car in front of a moving screen (instead of a car being pulled by a trailer while filming).
  • The dated expressions “The out-of-doors” and “how’s them apples”
  • Constant smoking
  • The state of California has never used the electric chair as a means of execution

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