The Man Who Wasn’t There

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(2001) ★★★★

Sky Movies Select: Friday 22 May, 6pm

Time-biding barber Billy Bob Thornton looks at the world of 1949 Santa Rosa through smoke-squinted eyes, and doesn’t much care for what he sees. Like his wife Frances McDormand’s secret affair with her big-mouthed boss James Gandolfini. When a venture capital opportunity crops up, Thornton sees a way of raising the money by blackmailing Gandolfini. A simple, sneaky plan which backfires so spectacularly that McDormand ends up on trial for murder. Filmed in shimmering black-and-white and recounted in a croaky, rasping voice-over by Thornton, the Coen brothers’ dark story of betrayal unfolds like an immaculately conceived compendium of scenes from the pessimistic post-war Hollywood crime melodramas that were tagged by the French as film noir. The Coens, of course, are good enough to transcend straight homage and, although the skewered serendipity of The Postman Always Rings Twice courses through their story, this meticulously crafted picture is remindful of nothing so much as their own curious take on human behaviour. Moving like a phantom in his own life, Thornton’s watchful barber discreetly glides through the shadows like the ghost of Mrs Danvers. At different times, Gandolfini and Thornton’s barber-shop brother-in-law Michael Badalucco both ask him “What kind of man are you?” And answer came there none. In common with the Coens’ best work, it’s often very funny in a weird, indefinable way. Thornton recalling how he first met McDormand, for example. She suggested they get married a couple of weeks later. Shouldn’t they get to know each other, wondered Thornton. Why, she replied, does it get better? And there’s Tony Shalhoub’s showboating lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider, rambling on about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and tossing sand in the jury’s eyes because the truth made his head hurt: “He told them not to look at the facts,” says Thornton, “but to look at the meaning of the facts. And that the facts had no meaning. He even had me going.” The character names are as fine as anything invented by Preston Sturges: Scarlett Johansson is Birdy Abundas, the bewigged Jon Polito is Creighton Tolliver. Good as all this is, it also sometimes seems more manufactured than the Coens’ very best work, and composer Carter Burwell’s use of Beethoven’s sonatas Moonlight and Pathetique plays a part in this feeling.

Certificate: 15
Duration: 116min