A unique, peculiar, riveting experience, "The Man Who Wasn't There" is one of the best films of the year. The likes of "A.I." and "Moulin Rouge" will make more money, but in 20 years the Coen brothers' moving, funny, noirish tale will be held in higher regard. This is a film that delivers on its initial promise, with an Oscar-worthy lead performance, an exquisite script, and extraordinarily beautiful black and white photography.
Billy Bob Thornton is mesmerising as the constantly smoking small-town barber Ed Crane, mixed up in murder in 1949 Santa Rosa, when he tries to blackmail the affluent store owner (James Gandolfini) who's having an affair with his wife (Frances McDormand).
This is a noir flick in as much as you can ever categorise the Coens' work, but as usual you get the feeling that the film makers aren't overly concerned with the story; they're not entirely sincere. The film - heavily influenced by the bleak fiction of James M Cain ("Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice") - superficially borders on pastiche, but the noir stylings provide only a frame around which they weave questions of identity, guilt, and redemption. This is their mid-life crisis movie. It's Dostoevsky for Hitchcock fans. Ed Crane is modern man.
"The Man Who Wasn't There" is slow, certainly, maybe even meandering, but the emotional pull of the finale belies anything you might expect from a Coens movie, particularly after the disappointment of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?". Better than "Fargo"? Definitely. A masterpiece? Quite possibly. It's certainly worth seeing twice to find out.