Whether or not the Coen brothers are inclined to admit it, "The Man Who Wasn't There" conjures up memories of Cain and Hitchcock, referencing the former in its 1940s-set plot and themes and the latter in its Santa Rosa ("Shadow of a Doubt") location. Billy Bob Thornton plays title character, Ed Crane, a barber all but invisible to those around him. His wife Doris (Frances McDormand) ignores him; her brother Frank (Michael Badalucco), Ed's partner at the barber shop, chatters incessantly; and talkative customer Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito) doesn't even remember his face. When Tolliver offers Ed a partnership in a dry cleaning business in exchange for $10,000, Ed decides to take a chance and blackmails a local heavy named Big Dave (James Gandolfini), whose affair with Doris Ed has quietly tolerated.
Big Dave ponies up with the cash to the anonymous blackmailer, but when he discovers Ed is responsible, the consequences are disastrous for Dave and the blame falls on Doris. It's a basic tenet of noir that the hero's actions, intentionally or not, cause an unraveling of events, and they do here. Despite Ed's efforts to hire a top lawyer (Tony Shalhoub) to defend his wife, fatal forces have been set in motion and Ed can do nothing to stop them.
Perhaps Ed's predicament would feel more poignant were it not for the jaded detachment with which his character is depicted. As portrayed by Thornton, Ed Crane wanders disaffectedly through life, somehow unencumbered by the dissolution of his world. He seems oddly unruffled by the chaotic events he has set into motion; as a consequence, so do we. That sense of detachment is underscored by Thornton's ubiquitous voiceover narration; rather than illuminating character motivation, it feels curiously dislocating.
That said, "The Man Who Wasn't There" is one of the most lustrous black-and-white films made in years. Roger Deakins' fluid cinematography complements the Coens' intricate mise-en-scène and rich compositions to stunning effect. Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini and Michael Badalucco. Directed by Joel Coen. Written by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. Produced by Ethan Coen. A USA release. Black comedy/Film noir. Not yet rated. Running time: 116 min