Nowhere Man

s critics never fail to note, the Brothers Coen are some kind of film savants--they know everything about movies and nothing about life. In the course of nine films, they have plundered the dark sleaze and high camp of all-American film tradition, yet for all this reverence, they remain irreverent in their refusal to take seriously the pathetic and often gruesome worlds they present on screen.

Now the Brothers Grim are back, with The Man Who Wasn't There. After stumbling with unrestrained excess of Americana in last year's Oh Brother Where Art Thou, the Coens have now made a quiet, ponderous piece that is more detached from its own machinations than anything seen from them before. Its world comes alive, if only to desperately want to take a nap. The result is both painfully slow-paced and wholly absorbing, an intricately crafted empty jar.

Billy Bob Thornton, in a role not far from his breakthrough performance in Sling Blade, plays Ed Crane,

a striking

combination of

Norman Rockwell's sheen and Bogart's masculine mystique, with a cigarette perpetually smoldering in contrast to his impenetrably blank face. Crane's debonair looks belie his morbidly banal nature, as he drifts through life with a barber job stale as his marriage.

This human blank slate is the kind of noir fixture, aimless and none too bright, that pops up without fail in a Coen Brothers film. Here they strip off the likable goofiness of The Dude (hmm, Lebowski?) and leave only his essence in Crane: a profound and unspeakable alienation nearly smothered beneath an overstylized, hyperreal world. At first it appears he's just guarded and reserved, but this is a rare case where character development works backwards: the more we see of him, the less there really is. As Crane's life comes unhinged by a modest blackmail scheme gone awry, his reaction--or lack thereof--is nearly inhuman.

The supporting cast is great, notably Tony Shalhoub as the Cranes' lawyer--but they're given less attention by the brothers than usual. The real loser is Frances McDormand, in a rare screen moment that fails to sparkle. As Crane's ambitious and domineering wife, she exits far too early in the film, and she's greatly missed.

That said, The Man Who Wasn't There is one of the Coens' most challenging and arguably brilliant films. Thornton's quiet bulldozer of a performance is its lynchpin, a powerful force around which everything seems to levitate. When Crane unexpectedly blurts out existentialist angst over the cutting of a kid's hair, we laugh at another Coen moment. But when the bathos finally fades to black amidst similar existential rumblings, the effect is deeply unsettling and closer to Camus' The Stranger than anything in a James Cain noir. Here the Coens have captured a void, perhaps what is to be found at the heart of all film--shapeless, empty and utterly fascinating.


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