The Man Who Wasn't There

USA, 2001. Director: Joel Coen.

The latest Coen koan, The Man Who Wasn't There, is typically wonderful, with some of the most beautiful black-and-white cinematography I've ever seen. Critical talk of it being their best seems beside the point: if any contemporary film-makers are creating a cohesive and distinctive body of work, it's the Coens (also: Tim Burton). Until the half-way mark, The Man actually feels the least Coen-like of their recent work; while it's a little more familiar in its weirdness after that, it remains inventive and fresh until the end.

More than any film in a fair while, The Man is one that will lose most of its impact on the small screen. Many of its finer moments dwell in silence on tiny details—wisps of smoke, hairs on the skin—that will simply disappear on a low-resolution TV, leaving only emptiness and a nagging sense that nothing is happening.

In fact, everything is happening: the Coens use those details to build up a sense of detachment in the main character, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), and in the audience. We find ourselves drifting along with him, strangely unperturbed as his world starts to fall apart—yet always, like Ed, watching it all; it's as if he has stepped out of the screen and is watching himself with us.

A film noir about a man watching himself drift to his doom. Now there's a movie for our times.


First published in Walking West, 30 October 2001.
This page: 2 November 2001.

©2001 Rory Ewins