The Coen Brothers play it (comparatively) straight this time around, with a somber black and white noir about a nondescript barber named Ed (Billy Bob Thornton) living in a small California town in 1949, who decides to take a chance in life by investing in a get-rich-quick scheme involving the burgeoning dry cleaning industry.
In order to raise the capital for his investment, he decides to blackmail his wife's boss (James Gandolfini), whom he suspects of having an affair with his wife (Frances McDormand), for $10,000. As with all classic noir setups - as well as most of the Coen Brothers' films - things unravel horribly when the rest of the world doesn't cooperate with Ed's simple plan.
When the Coens are uninspired, their films remain great-looking but empty genre-spoofing exercises (The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?). But when they really cut the crap and write a great story, they can come up with something transcendent like Fargo (still my favorite of their films) or The Man Who Wasn't There.
In fact, there's a lot of similarities between this film and Fargo, though you wouldn't think so at first. Ed is a kind of amalgam of Fargo's two main characters, Marge and Jerry. Like Jerry (William H. Macy), Ed is a weak husband who amateurishly enters the world of petty crime to make some easy money. Like Marge (McDormand), he is a well-meaning innocent whose heart is broken when he realizes the depths to which everyone around him has sunk. It's as though Ed, through his one act of deceit - he writes his blackmail letter in the third person - opens the door to the corruption surrounding him on all sides, from one character's phony war stories to a shifty lawyer's huge expense account, to a sweet schoolgirl's unexpected lasciviousness.
The Coens are at their most honest when capturing the pettiness of human nature, and while The Man Who Wasn't There lacks Fargo's original approach and its daft Midwest humor, it explores the same folds of melancholy and may surprise fans of their more glib work. Not that there isn't the requisite wacky dialogue, ironic plot twists, and gorgeous cinematography (thanks to their longtime DP Roger Deakins) that fans have come to expect from a Coen Brothers production.
Needless to say, on a technical level, everything in this film is perfect. And although there are some oblique surrealist curlicues in the story, the directness of their delivery is very refreshing. For once it doesn't feel like the Coens are trying to pull a fast one on their audience.