Didja ever think about hair?” asks the barber, played by Billy Bob Thornton, snipping away at a chipmunk-favoured, comic-book-reading little boy, the crown of whose head he has turned into a hypnotic blonde whorl. “How it’s a part of us? How it keeps on coming, and we just cut it off and throw it away?”
His colleague tells him to cut it out: his weird intense talk is going to scare the kid. But the barber persists. “I’m gonna throw this hair away now and mingle it with common house dirt,” he says wonderingly, quietly, apparently on the verge of some kind of breakdown. But then, with an infinitesimally dismissive wince, the barber waves the thought away and replaces his ever-present cigarette: “Skip it.”
All of the power, the understatement and the profound enigma of Billy Bob Thornton’s magnificent performance is contained in that brilliantly controlled and modulated scene, difficult though it is to single that out or anything else. The Man Who Wasn’t There is quite simply the Coen brothers’ masterpiece, and Thornton’s brooding presence as the barber, Ed Crane, is a stunning achievement. He is reticent, watchful, neither ingenuous nor jaded, but toughly stoic. He’s quietly cynical and even desperate yet with a strong strain of decency, even quaintness: his strongest oath is “Heavens to Betsy!”
Ed Crane has hardly any dialogue, but dominates the movie through his rumbling, tenor voice-over: he is indeed there but not there. This is a classic performance from Thornton, displaying the kind of maturity and technical mastery that we hardly dared hope for from this actor. His Ed Crane forms a kind of triangle with Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man and Gary Cooper in High Noon: a paradigm of virile yet faintly baffled American ordinariness.
The work is a thriller in the style of James M Cain, set in suburban California in 1949 and obviously influenced by the movies of the period, yet somehow transmitting the atmospheric crackle of a strange tale from The Twilight Zone. It is the story of how self-effacing Ed Crane, in yearning for a better station in life than that of the humble barber, with his smock and scissors, succeeds only in getting mixed up in the adulterous affair being conducted by his wife Doris, played by Frances McDormand, and her boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini), leading to blackmail and bloodshed.
The Man Who Wasn’t There is shot in black-and-white by the Coens’ long-standing cinematographer Roger Deakins, with superbly observed locations and sets: exquisitely lit, designed and furnished. As in so many of the Coens’ films, an entire universe is summoned up, partly recognisable as our own, and yet different, a quirky variant on real life with its very own fixtures, fittings and brand names. Doris and Big Dave work in a department store with the jocular name of Nirdlinger’s, whose creepy mannequins and hulking display cabinets are shown in the empty store at night. Ed Crane reads pulp magazines with names such as Stalwart, Muscle Power and Salute. Yet in one shot he’s also frowning over Life magazine, whose cover advertises
an arresting article: “Evelyn Waugh: Catholics in the US”. In a previous scene we’ve seen Ed and Doris attending church on a Tuesday night for the charity bingo session: a secular high mass for the semi-believers.
Frances McDormand is the second compelling reason to see this film, the querulous wife who married our dourly taciturn Ed after a courtship of just two weeks, and on being asked if they should get to know each other more, simply replied: “Does it get better?” Their relationship is saturated with a gamey erotic perfume, like the ones she gets from Nirdlinger’s with her staff discount.
With extraordinary clarity and economy, Joel and Ethan Coen present scenes from a marriage as fascinatingly fraught with tension as anything in the cinema. All the time, Thornton’s face looms over everything, a one-man Mount Rushmore of disquiet. Later on, Ed’s pushy lawyer describes him as a piece of modern art, and that indeed is what he is, a piece of art, one moreover that the camera loves: his face is a composite of planes and lines, crags and wrinkles, defined by the crows’ feet that fan out as he squints into the sun, or to filter out the cigarette smoke.
What a stunning, mesmeric movie this is. I only hope that on Oscar night the Academy is not so cauterised with dumbness and cliché that they cannot recognise its originality and playful brilliance. Noir is the catch-all term given to movies like this — yet the Coens achieve their greatest, most disturbing moments in fierce sunlight, in the outdoors and in the dazzling white light of the final sequence. So I propose a new genre for this film — noir-blanc, a seriocomic masterpiece that transforms the quotidian ordinariness of waking lives.