The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) – reviewed by George

The ancient Greeks did it, but it probably started around hunter-gatherer campfires. I’m talking about telling tales of men whose hubris inflames the gods, or flouts the conventions of a religion, or awakens karma, or fate, or whatever version of inevitable come-uppance suits your belief system. Man is grist for the ever-turning mill, so know your place and stay in it. The clockwork universe will crush you in the rolls of the watch-spring if you get too clever.

Hubris in this case consists of trying to escape from being monumentally bored at working as the second barber in a shop owned by your brother-in-law, while your wife works at a big department store and sleeps with her boss, who incidentally does not own the store – his wife does. To get out of the rut you’ll invest in a new idea: dry cleaning. The trouble is you need $10,000 dollars to buy in on the deal. So you concoct a scheme that allows you to blackmail your wife’s boss anonymously by threatening to tell his wife about his affair. You get the money and make the investment, and justice-karma-fate seals your doom. By the end of the film, four of the major characters are dead, including of course the man with the hubris.

So what is it about this film that grabs your attention and doesn’t let go? Well, it’s a Coen Brothers picture: Joel directed, Ethan wrote the screenplay, and together they co-produced. And that means it has an extremely watchable style. It was shot in black and white, but this is not anybody’s previous black and white, that I can remember. It has a muted, slightly unfocused quality that makes it possible in a single shot to have deep blacks and/or blinding whites, while the remainder of the shot is in bland grey tones. And many shots are from unusual angles, which to me emphasized the idea of the little man subject to the vagaries of outside forces. The score is almost entirely Beethoven piano sonatas – six are used. Chris Gorak, the art director, and Chris Spellman, the set decorator, deserve special mention as well.

The acting is uniformly good. Billy Bob Thornton plays the barber, Frances McDormand his wife, and James Gandolfini her boss. And Scarlett Johansson turns up in a small role as a small-town girl who can play the piano. But I felt that the standout work was done by Jon Polito as the guy with the big new idea, Tony Shalhoub as the defense lawyer, and Michael Badalucco as the head barber. A major film.

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