Man Who Wasn't There [2001]

Director: Joel Coen
Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, Michael Badalucco, James Gandolfini, Katherine Borowitz
Genre: Crime, Drama
Rating: R (Restricted)
Runtime: 116 minutes

For all of its late-1940s cold war paranoia, pulp fiction dialogue, and frenzied greed, Joel and Ethan Coen's The Man Who Wasn't There is their most cool and collected film since Blood Simple. An unassuming barber with a scheming wife (Frances McDormand) and a serious smoking habit, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is an onlooker to his own life, a ghostly presence set against a silver-toned film noir backdrop. Only when he decides to alter his fate by blackmailing his wife's lover (James Gandolfini) in order to invest with a traveling salesman (Jon Polito) touting the wave of the future--dry cleaning--do we begin to hear the full extent of Ed's understated, existential lament. As his lawyer (Tony Shalhoub) says in Ed's defense at his eventual trial for murder, "He is modern man." Thornton's deadpan eloquence and cinematographer Roger Deakins's precision lighting offer the perfect counterbalance to the requisite one-liners, plot twists, and false endings that have come to characterize recent Coen brothers films. Almost in spite of the obsessive cultural references (flying saucers, Nabokov's Lolita, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle), Ed Crane steps neatly from the fray as one of cinema's most memorably disenchanted characters. --Fionn Meade

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