Monday, August 17, 2009

What Kind Of Man Are You: The Man Who Wasn't There

“I’m going to take this hair and mix it with the dirt. Common household dirt.”

The Man Who Wasn’t ThereThe Man Who Wasn't There goes on the very short list of Coen Brothers films I’ve seen less then a dozen time. It’s been a long while since I revisited it, I was inspired to by the lunatic trailer for A Serious Man, and I’m glad I did. It’s maybe the Coen’s most troubling film, but it’s well worth seeing. There’s a lot to like even if there’s little to love.

It’s not hard to see why The Man Who Wasn’t There isn’t exactly a fan favorite. It’s an intensely uncomfortable film. Stylized and arch even for the Coens, full of their warped vision, but undercut by an uncomfortable existential hum, even in it’s most straightforwardly funny scenes (Like the trip to Frances McDormand’s “Wop” family wedding) that undercuts the enjoyment that visiting the Coen’s fractured world provides. In a lot of ways it’s darker then No Country For Old Men. It’s a decidedly almost purposefully minor film. And I can’t help but think it’s sort of brilliant.

In The Man Who Wasn’t There, Billy Bob Thorton plays a barber who so deadpan that he surely has reached a stage of zen. In a weird way he’s like The Dude’s evil Doppleganger, a man so laid back, one who abides much that nothing, not Tony Soprano fucking his wife, not a trip to the electric chair, a visit from Aliens, or even a blow job from Scarlett Johanson can get much of a rise out of him. The only thing that does knock him off his even keel is the opportunity to invest in Dry Cleaning, the wave of the future. To do so , he blackmails Gandolfini who’s having an affair with his wife, not that he minds that much, basically threatening to tell himself. And for that little show of ambition he ends up doomed in the best of Noir fashion.

The film is so laconic it can barely be said to have a pulse. It’s not like we care all that much what happens to Ed, how could we? He doesn’t care what happens to himself. For those who accuse the Coen’s of elitism this film has to drive them bugnuts. It’s practically anthropological, noir with all the passion surgically removed. This is the film people who hate The Coen brothers see every time they watch a Coen Brothers movie.

The film doesn’t involve us in a traditional way it just passes by like a fever dream. There are some stunning moments, Frances McDormand shot with genuine (though albeit, bizarre) eroticism for the first time since Blood Simple, the moment where the pane of safety glass fissures right in the middle of Gandolfini’s rage filled face. Dream logic, dialogue that doubles and Coens, pervaded with a sense of unease that’s down right Lynchian. Maybe the aliens who show up later in the film (surely the most unexpected since the ones who turned up to berate Woody Allen in Stardust Memories) are a message, because I don’t know if there’s ever been a film which seemed so much like the product of non human intelligence.

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