However, lose not a moment to thinking such a tight-lipped antihero makes “The Man Who Wasn’t There” an unbearably grim affair. It’s just the opposite; that’s what makes this calculating black-and-white so engrossing. It provides a perfect backdrop for the pitch-black deadpan wit (a Coen brothers specialty) that manages to be disturbing, funny and philosophical all at once. And the cause for that despair (post-World War II fears of communism, the atomic bomb, Roswell, McCarthyism) translates seamlessly, almost eerily, to a post-9/11 society.
But back to the despair. It colors every part of Ed’s life. He chain-smokes it silent while cutting hair at his brother-in-law’s (Michael Badalucco) barber shop, but when he discovers his wife’s affair he sees an opportunity to jump-start his life. The plan? Blackmail her lover, aptly named department store mogul Big Dave (James Gandolfini) for $10,000, then tap a middleman, the creepy, get-rich-quick drifter Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), to invest the funds in dry cleaning. It’s the wave of the future, Creighton brightly persists. “They don’t use water!”
Part of the fun of any Coen brothers movie is smashing, headlong, into unexpected plot twists, deaths and coincidences, and “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is chock-full of them. (Mum’s the word when it comes to more plot summary.) The beauty? The shocks don’t come fast and furious; that’s not how Joel and Ethan operate, at least not here (see “Burn After Reading” if you want a zany free-for-all). Slow and steady’s the pace of this film; there’s not one scene out of place, not one line of dialogue that doesn’t fit. When it comes to the technical aspects, like the gorgeous, awe-inspiring cinematography by Roger Deakins, a Coen regular, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is measured brilliance, an amazing send-up to classic film noir. The barber pole, with its stripes, stands out like a relief map against the bleakness, doing something Ed can’t: move. In any direction.
That high praise extends to the cast. The Coens know how to pick ’em, and there’s nary a weak link in this cadre. McDormand, a Coen staple, never missteps, and she makes Doris — who could have been an easy stereotype: the drunk, cheating, weeping, put-upon wife — a sympathetic character, one aware of her own shortcomings but unwilling to admit them, even when she’s caught. She’s proud and stubborn but self-aware, this one, and she might really, deep down, love her husband. Gandolfini’s Big Dave is a fearsome creature; he swings from sniveling to scary-as-hell in a way that makes it clear he earned his nickname. Tony Shaloub is comedy gold as pompous, pontificating attorney Freddy “I litigate; I don’t capitulate” Reidenschneider, and he’s the one who parrots what may be the film’s most telling line: “The more you look the less you know.”
Still, it doesn’t get much better than Billy Bob Thornton. This is the role he was born to play, and yet he doesn’t play Ed Crane; he is Ed Crane, from the chain smoking to laconic observations to the eternal disallusionment. No one else could play the part this good. Nobody. With his sad, shifty eyes and craggy face, he’s just what he says he is: “I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. No one saw me. I was the barber.” It’s a fascinating yet controlled performance, and one that taps into that elemental fear: that we’ll sleepwalk through life only to wake up too late. Who, readers, has not felt the same?