2 November 2001 | nunculus
What kind of a man are you?
It starts as another Coenian postmod pastichey picaresque: Noir Guy (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber, has a souse of a wife (Frances McDormand, floridly cast "against type") who loves bingo and her boss at work, a scheming fat man named Big Dave (James Gandolfini). When a comically inept con man (Jon Polito) comes to town, wanting to find a partner in a new business called "dry cleaning," we can see the signs a block away: Blackmail, best-laid-plans, murder ahead. The emphasis in this extremely academic take--more academic even than the Ph.Dish MILLER'S CROSSING--is on the sociological and political roots of noir. The postwarness, the cold-warness, the sunshine-boomtownness of the movie's mythical Santa Rosa (the location of SHADOW OF A DOUBT--but really, it's just early-Ellroy L.A.) are all underlined and double-underlined.
So far, so cool--and the movie is far easier to enjoy as a series of Abstracted Noir Components than the similarly suspension-of-disbelief-free LOST HIGHWAY. But then Noir Guy starts contemplating hair. He is the Sisyphus of Noirtown, performing a perfectly stupid task that never ceases to repeat itself, without gathering the slightest meaning. He even, in his blank way, waxes philosophical, like a Marine-town Woyzeck: "I want...I wanna put hair with...dirt, regular house dirt." "Ed, what the heck are ya talkin' about?" "I...Skip it."
And soon the movie metamorphs into a fedoras-and-Pall-Malls riff on Camus' THE STRANGER. Why does the Man Who Wasn't There kick off the chain of events that brings down all manner of ruination? Jealousy? Boredom? No ordinary human motives will do. And the Coens slyly insert a shyster lawyer (Tony Shalhoub) who's full of dime-store variants on post-structuralist touchstones: he uses the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as a sort of Twinkie Defense, and claims that his client is "Modern Man himself!...Indict him, and you are indicting yourself!" All of which, the Coens make clear, is so much malarkey--a way of kidding oneself, substituting entropy for dogma, avoiding the scary unknowableness of being alive.
Ethan Coen described THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE as "the movie Martin Heidegger would have made if he had come to Hollywood"--unusually forthright for two guys who are just, aw shucks, entertainers. Like Spielberg's A.I., it uses a perfectedness of technique to render the world as an arrangement of totemic abstractions--pixilated dots that don't add up to a coherent object. The movie gets you, terrifyingly and melancholically, inside the head of a guy for whom the simplest, table-and-chairs stuff is ceasing to make sense. And the brothers use Carter Burwell's variant on Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" in a way that's as crazily persistent, and ceaselessly effective, as the insanely repetitive romantic theme from Godard's CONTEMPT. (Not even Godard has used late Beethoven so aptly.) Like BARRY LYNDON, another movie whose central question is "What kind of a man are you?," THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE has an elusive, smokelike plangency. It's a picture you'll puzzle over, and sigh achingly at its images, for many years to come.