link back to kusp front page your npr member station and picture of the monterey bay
link to the KUSP program guide link to performing arts page link to contact KUSP make a pledge to kusp
listen to our live audio stream link to our program guide link to our performing arts page link to contact kusp make a pledge to kusp
listen to our live audio stream link to our playlists link to our newsroom link to our arts section
Main | Archive | Bios | Survey | Music | Public Affairs | Staff | Translator Status | Weather 
Read past reviews by the Film Gang

The Man Who Wasn't There
Reviewed by Dennis Morton

What kind of a man are you?

That question is asked three times in "The Man Who Wasn't There". It's a query more aimed than asked, an accusation veiled as a question. Absent the opprobrium, it's a question many of the characters in this film want answered, including Ed Crane, the protagonist, 'the man who wasn't there'.

The Coen brothers spend almost two fascinating hours adducing the evidence. In the end, we may not know with certainty just who Ed Crane is, but most of us know a good movie when we see it, and "The Man Who
Wasn't There" qualifies easily.

Not that the verdict is unanimous. Some critics felt the movie was too long. Others said, in effect, that they couldn't care less who Ed Crane is. 

In general, I understand this point of view. 

In general, I like to find someone in a movie with whom to commiserate or identify. This movie offers no such character. It doesn't attempt to. But its compensatory qualities are legion.

"The Man Who Wasn't There" is rife with irony and oxymoron. For starters, it's the portrait of a taciturn barber, surely a rare creature. And the film has the feel of lush color and rich texture, but every frame is in black and white. Even the shades of gray are somehow tactile. Ed Crane, the barber who never considers himself a barber ("...I just cut the hair", he tells us) is a man without discernable passion, yet how passionately the Coen brothers tell his story. And, for a 'man who wasn't there', before this film is over Ed Crane will have left in his wake a trail of carnage and dissolution. 

The film is set in Santa Rosa, California, circa 1949. In keeping with its noirish tone, much of the story is told in voice-over. From the opening credits right through the last scene, Roger Deakins' cinematography is stunning. The writing is droll and dry. And some of the humor is so subtle I didn't get the joke until long after I'd left the theatre. I won't tell you any of the jokes, but pay attention to the opening monologue delivered by Frank, the lead barber. It occurs at the very beginning of the movie, but I didn't laugh until after I'd seen the film for the fourth time. 

The performances are first rate. Billy Bob Thornton, as the passive Ed Crane, has never been so good, but the smaller roles are gems too. I particularly liked Richard Jenkins' portrayal of a small town laywer on
intimate terms with a bottle of whiskey labeled 'Rosewood'. Tony Shalhoub is perfect as a hot shot lawyer. As a bon vivant, his appetite is exceeded in scale only by his desire to win. He's a Cassius Clay of the courtroom. At one point he tells his client: I don't capitulate. I litigate.

Just a few words about the plot: the action in the film is generated when Ed Crane, a diffident, second chair barber with an aversion to loquacity, steps out of character and makes a big time decision. Though his instincts tell him No!, a smouldering self-loathing, seasoned with a pinch of revenge, catalyzes a daring scheme. True to the noir convention,  this opens a pandora's box of consequences.

I leave the rest for you to enjoy. "The Man Who Wasn't There" may be the Coen brothers best film. You don't have to share their view of humanity to admire the skill with which they create a movie. This one is nearly flawless.  "The Man Who Wasn't There" is playing at The Riverfront Twin, in downtown Santa Cruz. 

For The Film Gang, this is Dennis Morton.

Copyright Dennis Morton 2001