Returning to the domain of film noir where the writing/directing duo of Joel and Ethan Coen got their big break with "Blood Simple" in 1984, "The Man Who Wasn't There" is a classic Coen Brothers concoction, chock full of quirky characters, great dialogue, and enough surprises to defy the expectations of even the most jaded moviegoers.
The story takes place in post-Second World War small-town America, where barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton of "Bandits") ekes out a joyless existence, cushioned only by his cigarettes, which he chain-smokes like there is no tomorrow. When he is not at the barber shop having his ear talked off by his brother-in-law Frank Raffo (Michael Badalucco, who appeared in the Coens' "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), Ed goes home to a broken marriage with wife Doris (Frances McDormand of "Almost Famous")-- not only is Doris an alcoholic, but she is also sleeping with her boss, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini of "The Last Castle"), at the town's department store. Being a man who prefers a smoke over rocking the boat, Ed accepts this, along with his lot in life... that is, until a business deal too good to pass up comes his way. Short of $10,000 for the needed initial investment, Ed decides to blackmail Brewster, which kicks off a number of unexpected reversals, deceptions, and murders, all wrapped-up nicely with a delicious and malicious ending.
Sumptuously shot in black and white, "The Man Who Wasn't There" is easily one of the most elegant films of the Coen Brothers' oeuvre. In addition to the luscious composition comprised of deep shadows and rich lighting effects, the Coen Brothers pay an obvious homage to the master of suspense himself, Alfred Hitchcock ("North by Northwest"), both with the script's rug-pulling plotting and the pervasive use of black humor. If it wasn't for the trademark offbeat touches of the Coen Brothers (including an odd 'alien abduction' subplot), "The Man Who Wasn't There" could easily pass as the handiwork of the 'Master of Suspense'.
Performance-wise, Thornton lays another milestone in his acting career with a superlative performance as the film's sad and not-so-smart anti-hero, a man who has resigned to a life of interminable hopelessness. Coen Brothers regular McDormand is solid as ever in the role of Ed's philandering wife, Gandolfini acquits himself well as Big Dave, while Tony Shalhoub ("Galaxy Quest") gets a number of the film's better lines as a fast-talking attorney.
While some moviegoers may find the pacing of "The Man Who Wasn't There" to be a bit too relaxed (the film could easily lose half-an-hour without sacrificing much story), the film's great performances, unforgettable lines, classy cinematography, and multiple reversals make it one of the more memorable suspense-thrillers of 2001.