‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’: A Lovely, Artistic Exhibition of the Coens’ Filmmaking Prowess

The Coen brothers’ subtle, restrained and impactful 2001 film noir The Man Who Wasn’t There is an exhibition of stylistic supremacy that marked the work of one of filmmaking’s most creative and accomplished duo. Joel and Ethan Coen built a beautifully filmed, black-and-white complex world of a barber barely floating through life. Billy Bob Thornton’s masterful performance, enriched with impressive contributions from the excellent, never-forgotten James Gandolfini, always-present Frances McDormand and a few others such as Michael Badalucco, Tony Shalhoub and Scarlett Johansson, carries the viewer from the opening scene to the closing credits, in a pedantically crafted, highly artistic film that champions the brothers’ style and finesse, the strongest cards in their deck since they started out in the business. Roger Deakins’ cinematography seems traditional, combining normal lensing and standard lighting to the effect of producing a visual style exceptionally neat, clean and polished. Carter Burwell, the composer to whom The Man Who Wasn’t There was the ninth collaboration with the Coens, adds a wonderful soundtrack perfectly coordinated with the emotional state of the protagonist, who deals with the problems and setbacks in his life simply by floating on like a leaf in the wind. On one occasion Abraham Lincoln famously stated he admitted he had no control over events, but that events had controlled him. This is the perfect description of what happens to our barber under the spotlight, but his passive, slow-motioned approach to life, accompanied by his dry yet completely insightful narration throughout the movie, won us over in a heartbeat.

The Man Who Wasn’t There was greatly praised from all sides, sharing the Best Director award with David Lynch (Mulholland Drive) at the Cannes Film Festival. Roger Deakins’ work was officially acknowledged with an Academy Award nomination. All these symbolic accolades aside, this film is a gripping proof of the filmmakers’ undeniable prowess. Its pace is slow to the degree of testing your patience: Roger Ebert even cited French critic Michel Ciment’s words, describing it as a “90-minute film that plays for two hours.” But the narrative somehow flows gently ahead just as reluctantly as its main character, the Chesterfield-chain-smoking barber advances through the story. The Man Who Wasn’t There is simply a humorous, well-acted, terrific piece of filmmaking one should make the time to explore.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Joel Coen & Ethan Coen’s screenplay for The Man Who Wasn’t There [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
A Film 4 interview with the Coen brothers from Cannes, where the film premiered in May of 2001.


Open YouTube video

It is a black and white film but it was actually shot in color and then converted to black and white in post production to retain more control over the process. Evan E. Richards managed to get ahold of the original color version of the movie. So here is the original color print next to the final black and white print for your comparison enjoyment.

 
“TO ME IT’S A REALLY BRILLIANT PIECE OF FILMMAKING”

Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins discusses the pleasures and problems of shooting in black-and-white, his visual influences, and his experience working with the Coen Brothers.

“There are some sequences in films that I think work filmically, that stand out to me, but that’s much more to do with the staging and the cutting and the mood of the thing as a sequence, the way everything comes together. I would say a number of sequences in The Man Who Wasn’t There, are cinematically as good as it gets. But that was completely down to Joel and Ethan. Their concept was just so brilliant. The sequence I remember most is when Billy Bob Thornton’s character is taking his wife home after the party with the pig. He’s putting his wife to bed, they’re coming home at night and he’s telling us, the audience, in a voiceover how he met her and how they got together as a couple, which is really sad. And then the phone rings, and he picks up the phone and it’s Dave, the guy his wife Marge is having an affair with. He goes to meet Dave in his store, at night, and he gets there and murders Dave, and then he gets back in his car and drives home. He comes back in the house, sits on the bed with Marge, and then he continues the story he’s been telling of how he met Marge before he went and committed the murder. To me it’s a really brilliant piece of filmmaking. Things like that stand out but it’s not because of my role or cinematography or a particular shot; the whole mood and the sadness, it’s cinema, you can’t actually explain it because it’s pure cinema. It makes you feel and think something only cinema can do.” —A Spectacular Collaboration: Roger Deakins and the Coen Brothers

 
“It wasn’t so much the photographic look of the film they were relating to than it was the sense of the small California town and the atmosphere of the town. We talked about it and it was like—it wasn’t ‘doing noir.’ We wanted to do a modern film but it just happened to be this. We weren’t trying to copy a film noir or anything. If it looks film noir it’s just because I was playing with the lighting and what felt right at that moment. It’s not like the film I’m doing with them now (Hail, Caesar!). There’s definite elements in that film where I’m going to consciously recreate, if you like, film noir and other kinds of lighting that I wouldn’t normally do. But for The Man Who Wasn’t There, I didn’t have references or anything. It was nothing like saying, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this kind of scene that we saw in Citizen Kane or Sunset Boulevard. It wasn’t about that. I just approached it in the way I would any film, thinking, ‘What should this scene feel like,’ you know?

I remember the scene they were most particular about the lighting was when the character who’s murdered in the film, when his wife comes to the doorway and talks about being taken by aliens or whatever it is. They were very keen that that had a spooky kind of feeling about it and that the shadows of the trees should start moving and the wind should come up as she’s talking. They wanted something really odd about it. I loved Kiss Me Deadly, actually. It’s so great and unpretentious. I mean it’s a fantastic movie. And Sunset Boulevard, you know? And—I guess it’s film noir—The Sweet Smell of Success, I think, is one of the greatest movies of all time.” —Roger Deakins recalls The Man Who Wasn’t There and film noir favorites

Big Dave is a smaller part but key to the plot of The Man Who Wasn’t There, and played with panache. Gandolfini says that he appreciates the way the Coen brothers, like the people behind The Sopranos, know what tone they want and how to get it. He cracks up remembering the first time he saw Thornton transformed into a forties character, with waxy brows and shellacked, sculptural hair. “He looked like a young Frank Sinatra,” he says. And he mischievously implies that a crucial fight scene between them was fun to do because Thornton is so thin. As he praises the Coens, one can hear his concern that future movie collaborations drawn up by Hollywood committee might not be so confident and smart and fun. “I’ve been spoiled,” he says again and again. Maybe so. Still, to meet him is to conclude that he hasn’t, and won’t, let it go to his head. —James Gandolfini: Not Just Another Wise Guy


Open YouTube video—Making of

James Gandolfini interview with a short clip of Joel Coen directing Gandolfini and Frances McDormand.

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Open YouTube video

The 2013 The Art of the Score discussion hosted by Alec Baldwin and featuring the Coen brothers plus their long time composer Carter Burwell is available in its entirety via Soundtrack Specialist on YouTube. A great meeting of the minds which dares to examine film music from a psychological perspective. Highly entertaining and worth every minute.

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of the Coen Brothers The Man Who Wasn’t There. Still photographer: Melinda Sue Gordon.

 
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  • Evan E. Richards

    Evan E. Richards managed to get ahold of the original color version of the movie. Not Evane Richards 🙂

    • cinephiliabeyond

      Apologies, and thanks for the correction. Love your work!

      • Evan E. Richards

        Many thanks!
        I love your site as well. It’s on my short list of most visited bookmarks.