No One Could Have Guessed the Sit-Up-and-Take-Notice Greatness of the Coens' The Man Who Wasn't There

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I saw the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive before Sept. 11, and even at that time it was difficult to fit the films into a context. Both were more grave and adventurous than the current drift of American movies. Now that there is a context (facilely expressed by the 9/11 lament, "Nothing will ever be the same"), the seriousness of these films is even more impressive?and more to be trusted. The Coen brothers and Lynch have seen through the phoniness of most new movies and apprehended a realization about average American lives that should force viewers to awaken to the hard truth about how we use familiar fictions to deceive ourselves. This is almost never the topic of popular movies, but in The Man Who Wasn't There the Coens audaciously use the sentimental conventions of film noir and pulp narrative to uncover false consciousness.

Wittier and more incisive as the Coen brothers have become?since the wonderful nostalgic revue of The Hudsucker Proxy, the blinkered audacity of Fargo, The Big Lebowski's tongue-in-radical-cheek, the visionary parochialism of O Brother, Where Art Thou??no one could have guessed the sit-up-and-take-notice greatness of The Man Who Wasn't There. Like Lynch's Mulholland Drive, its boldness suggests a summary masterpiece?a story and statement that years of life observation and filmmaking practice have been leading toward. Unexpectedly, it stars Billy Bob Thornton?the emblem of freaky, self-righteous pretense?in one of the most icily sympathetic characterizations in recent movies. As Ed Crane, the wavy-haired barber in post-World War II Santa Rosa, CA, Thornton might almost be one of his own unctuous Sling Blade/One False Move creations, a smug loser. But God bless the Coens for not borrowing Thornton's sentimentality; they turn Crane into the same blameworthy, existential jerk as a James M. Cain protagonist (a probable source for the messianic nihilism Thornton specializes in). This shrewd casting choice and nervy character conception illustrates what big stakes the Coens are playing for. (Or maybe Edward Norton was busy.)

Photographed in glistering black-and-white moral contrasts by Roger Deakins, The Man Who Wasn't There evokes the entire history of film noir and pulp drama, but it isn't tailcoating genre like Blood Simple; the Coens have outgrown their adolescent fascination with noir and now concentrate on spiritual dilemma. Visually, the period detail and atmospheric shadows make it like following a gorgeous slide lecture on postwar bric-a-brac and catching remnants of American morality. Ed Crane narrates, bidding for the audience's confidence, but his dry-voiced resemblance to hardboiled confessional literature (echoing numerous detectives, reporters and rebels on the run) makes an ironic statement on movie mores. Telling the story of his own bad marriage and humiliation, Crane claims absolution for each moment of failure: his wife Doris' (Frances McDormand) hostile distance; her affair and embezzlement with department store coworker Big Dave (James Gandolfini); Crane's attempt at blackmailing Big Dave and turning it into a get-rich scheme with an adventurous con man (Jon Polito); and Crane's seeking redemption through sharky lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) and teenage girl Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johansson). This twilight world runs against Crane's wishes but not against his will. It is Crane's participation in everyday corruption?and his constant suspicion?that makes him the most complex Coen protagonist ever. Wary of innocence, the Coens bring Crane's guilt very close to us; a reflection of our own worst (or most honest) self-awareness.

In this neo-noir era, cynicism isn't usually meant to be taken seriously; it's just cool. But barber Ed Crane ("He is modern man!" blurts his trial lawyer) is the first genre movie lead since we underwent the Tarantino devolution to seriously question his own surety. When a towheaded boy sits in the barber chair reading a Dead-Eye Western pulp comic, Crane wonders, "Hair. How it keeps on coming! It just keeps growing! It's part of us and we cut it off and throw it away." That existential amazement?so oddly poetic?elevates the movie. It exposes pulp (and its pretenses) as insufficient to deal with the daily profundity of living. The great joke of The Man Who Wasn't There comes from the Coens daring to find the country's hidden pulse in pulp. They contemplate the common, unconscious, postwar faith in business and professionalism where corporate etiquette is placed above human ethics. ("You're way out of line!" Crane tells a flirting business partner.)

Not just anti-pulp, the Coens best the defensive sentimentality still taught in high school readings of Death of a Salesman. Through clever use of language ("It's gone. Vaporized like the Nips at Nagasaki"), they reveal and subvert the American ideology that deludes Ed Crane and almost everyone he knows. This pointed communication?always a delightful Coen subtext?is unprecedented except in Preston Sturges, who obviously influenced the Coens' acumen regarding American speech and manners.

A curt, three-way conversation between Crane and two cops goes:

"He's the decedent."

"I don't understand."

"He's the dead guy."

Statement-consternation-clarification. Formality-neutrality-ending with a trump card banality. (It recalls the exchange in Sturges' Christmas in July: "It's putrid!" "Why is that?" "Because it stinks!") The words themselves don't convey what their use and pronunciation imply. Attending to such minutiae is part of the Coens' comic gift and their dramatic significance. They've revived Sturges' nomenclature to achieve serious assessment of social habit. Phrases like "Cook the books," "Friend," "In your ear, Brother," are not simply time-worn, or nostalgic. (Or show-offy as in Miller's Crossing.) The verbal exchange of ideas signifies shared culture. Now, the grownup Coens observe a shared malaise. It's the year's best screenplay thus far. When Crane asks for legal advice and his neighbor Walter Abundas (Richard Jenkins) answers in a muddle of drunken sadness, "Probity...probity," the two men's poignant empathy conveys a culture-wide moral condition. O Brother! was rich with comic empathy; The Man Who Wasn't There responds to our era's cheap cynicism by recognizing it for what it is: bathos.

That's the corrective we need right now but that pseudo-serious American movies (Life as a House, Memento, The Last Castle, Training Day) all lack. The Coens have not settled for reviving a genre, as fools claimed for Pulp Fiction or Gladiator; instead, they retrieve the tacky soul of a debased art form. Every hateful character has a sympathetic side. This film's quietest moments?Crane's remembrance of a chilly solitude with Doris, his realization of a widow's paranoia or his attempt to encourage Birdy's piano playing?show how good, complex and deeply recognizable honest American art can be. The lack of pretense extends to the music score?an ingenious use of Beethoven's Pathetique and Moonlight sonatas played with a childlike halting. Not too tony, the piano solos illuminate the story's adolescent basis; we properly gauge the distance between Crane's self-pity and adult, metaphysical tragedy?and understand both. Beethoven gives American banality (Crane's empty house and mundane admission, "I was the barber") tragic dimension through its musical mismatch. I despair of ever convincing snobs that Bubble Boy is a superior film to Waking Life, but The Man Who Wasn't There bridges the gap between pop and high art. Its music and imagery combine as mournfully as in Bela Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies while feeling perfectly homespun, emotionally authentic.

Watching throngs of working people living oblivious to his own troubles, Crane thinks, "It seemed like I knew a secret. Like I'd made it to the outside and they were still struggling below." That's a film noir conceit that the Coens subvert. They do it by outclassing?and outwitting?generic expectations: Big Dave's wife (Katherine Borowitz) tells Crane a secret derived from marital panic, the postwar red scare and sci-fi hysteria. She appears in his doorway, her hat outlined against moonlight, its veil like a spider web entrapping her mind. With Skip Lievsay recording a paranoid rustling wind underneath her words, it's a delirious presentation of the ways Americans project their fear and unhappiness. Business ("Dry cleaning. Wash without water"), blackmail schemes, courtroom scenarios, sci-fi nightmares and pulp fiction all work to intensify/domesticate common madness. While Thornton keeps Crane stony, the women are resonant. Not-so-tough McDormand, fragile Borowitz and nubile Johansson credibly depict stages of dissatisfaction and yearning?they may also be Crane's projections, yet he views them mysteriously.

At times, the Coens shade the characters' faces, their eyes hidden in dark corridors, in a bar or behind the chiaroscuro of diagonal slats in a bank partition. Individual shames are blotted out; suffering entities turned into silhouettes. Hitchcock's The Wrong Man had similar elegant, gray-flannel despair, but the Coens are sophisticated enough to evoke-then-tease that obscure landmark. For them, the reference is more than a fashion statement. And through the conceit of The Man Who Wasn't There, they more seriously mock "The chaos of a work of modern art"?the mess evident in movies like Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, The Usual Suspects and Memento?by weaving together the different levels of Crane's self-deception and the lies of pop culture. They stop/start the narration after a death scene and Crane's interpolated memory/regret?which goes deeper into his loneliness?is as good as any of the tropes in Shoot the Piano Player. Every goofy or sinister advance of the crime plot turns into husband, brother, father, family complications: fidelity is complemented by pregnancy and death. Faith is mocked by bingo and spiritualism. Crane describes a fortune teller: "She was reading me like a book. Man, she was phony." That "man" is sneaky hip?a giveaway of the pop sophistication that angles "truth." So is the "like a book" cliche. When the source of Crane's narrative is finally revealed, the complexity of what the Coens have risked is sobering and stabilizing.

Braving cultural satire (a Coen specialty: Doris grousing about the ethnic absurdity of her own family's pig-riding, pie-eating picnic), the Coens also brave poetry. Crane's mundane meditations achieve fine spiritual expression. (He utters a "soil"/"soul" assonance to be savored.) Some might snore at the plain decency of Crane reaching out to Birdy while standing next to a figurine, its balance a strain for morality, humanism and grace. ("How could it work?" the smitten barber wonders as his view of Birdy's teenage romance segues into a courtroom scheme.) Others might sneer at how the Coens turn objects like hubcaps or flying saucers into symbols of Americans' ever-spinning hopes and frustrations. If viewers' responses have been that hardened by the putrid legacy of pulp and neo-noir, then they'll miss the Coens' point: At this stage of American cultural history those genres?and the lives they imbricate?are in desperate need of transcendence.

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