• Pages

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 42 other followers

  • Top Posts

No. 29: “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001)

Thoreau would have loved “The Man Who Wasn’t There.” You see, barber Ed Crane (portrayed with sly wit by Billy Bob Thornton) is living a life of desperation so quiet that it’s damn near mute. He suppresses every discontented feeling, sucking so intently on cigarettes we wonder if he half expects to find joy, not a smoldering butt, at the bottom. He doesn’t, of course, but neither do most of the people who waft in and out of his life. Nearly everyone — from Ed’s philandering, hard-drinking wife Doris (Frances McDormand, flawless as always) to her scheming boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini) — in Ed’s world is just as trapped and miserable as he is. Scene for scene, this sedate stunner of a film plays out like a visual tribute to Thoreau’s most famous soundbite. The desperation, though quiet, is palpable.

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?

Review: “True Romance” (1993)

“True Romance” has been called a fantasy, a violent, sexy fantasy. But let’s ix-nay P.C. talk and call the film what it really is: a violent, sexy teen boy’s wet dream. (Was it one from Quentin Tarantino’s personal collection? Don’t put it past him.) Not that there’s anything wrong with that, specifically if said dream is as action-packed and overstuffed with talent as “True Romance” is. Plus, there’s a flippant, postmodern cleverness to the script, which requires a character to say, while whipping his purple Cadillac into reverse in traffic, “We now return to ‘Bullit’ already in progress.”

That character is Clarence Worley (Christian Slater), an amiable guy who works in a Michigan comic book store, loves kung fu movies and waxes philosophic about Elvis. (“True Romance” begins with a conversation, this time about “Jailhouse Rock” showcasing the true essence of rockabilly, and Val Kilmer steps in as Clarence’s Guardian Elvis.) Clarence, like so many men in Tarantino’s movies, is a regular guy catapulted into extraordinary circumstances. What’s intriguing is that in every film the protagonists react differently to these gamechangers. In “True Romance,” it’s a chatty blonde named Alabama (Patricia Arquette) who upends Clarence’s life. They meet at a Sonny Chiba filmfest, there’s a shared moment over pie and soon they’re back at his place professing love. The trouble is that Alabama’s a prostitute — only four days in — with a pimp, Drexl (Gary Oldman) as delusional as he is sadistic. Oldman, barely recognizable in dreads, has a blast but doesn’t skimp on the sadism; Drexl is one scary hustler, even creepier than Harvey Keitel in “Taxi Driver.”

Since Clarence has been waiting his whole life for a twist like this, he seizes the opportunity to defend Alabama’s honor in a gleefully bloody fashion, a choice that leads to all manner of complications — including his accidental possession of a suitcase jammed with blow — that must be seen to be believed. Slater takes to the part with ease, glossing over Clarence’s good looks and getting right at his desire to be someone’s action hero. And that tango with Drexl provides him with plenty of opportunities. Into his quiet life come: a mafioso named Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken, witty perfection); a dealer missing his suitcase of coke (the always-intimidating James Gandolfini); Clarence’s estranged father Clifford (Dennis Hopper); Lee Donowitz (Saul Rubinek), a movie producer looking to buy the coke cheap and flip it; Lee’s squeamish assistant (Bronson Pinchot); and some cops (Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn) bent on busting up that deal. Mayhem abounds, and with more than a few scenes involving grisly violence (that Arquette, she can handle herself with a toilet seat).

What with all this bloodshed, energy and colorful types, “True Romance” has all the trappings of a zippy Tarantino trip. Script-wise, it is, but where the film falters is in its direction. Action man Tony Scott’s in control of this venture, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. There seems to be a sizable disconnect between the world Tarantino has designed and the way Scott presents that world. The action, designed with panache and scripted for überdark comedy, is played straight, with none of the sequences showing particular flair. Particularly during the third-act shootout/bloodbath, the obvious precursor to the finale of “Reservoir Dogs,” Scott seems content to stick to the sidewalk. “True Romance” suffers for it. A ballsy story like this deserves an Evel Knievel calling the shots. Sigh. Even Tarantino was once a starving artist dependent on play-it-safe established types, I suppose.

Leave it to Tarantino, though, to write a movie that rises above unimaginative direction. The who’s-who in 1990s cast — Samuel L. Jackson and Brad Pitt have cameos — also works like a dream, with Hopper accessing his subtle side (he has one?), Oldman devouring scenery and Walken stealing the show with a tête-à-tête (“I’m the Antichrist. You got me in a vendetta kind of mood,” he tells Hopper). And while feminist critics could have a field day with Alabama, somehow I don’t see her as a shrinking violet. She’s misguided, a little moony, but she’s tough and smart, an able Bonnie to Slater’s Clyde. And, besides, if you’re yearning for a megadose of reality, kindly refer back to Sentence No. 1.

Grade: B+