It's just a shame that every aspect of this puzzler can't match its ocular splendor. Joel and Ethan Coen, no stranger to genre sendups and homages, have turned to the smoke-choked world of film noir for their latest effort, producing a movie that's even more in debt to this revered format than their first picture, 1985's Blood Simple. Taking a cue from the works of James M. Cain (whose Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice were both made into terrific films) but steering off into their own idiosyncratic direction, the siblings have crafted an infuriating misfire, a mixed bag of a movie that contains a number of wonderful moments that never quite coalesce.
In a perfectly pitched deadpan performance, Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, a taciturn barber living a modest existence in the Santa Rosa, CA of 1949. When he intuitively discovers that his wife Doris (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss, department store head Big Dave Nirdlinger (James Gandolfini), he doesn't really pay it any mind -- at least not at first. But after a shady gladhander (Jon Polito) turns up at the barber shop claiming to have the inside track on the lucrative "wave of the future" (dry cleaning), Ed decides to invest $10,000 in the enterprise. To come up with the dough, he decides to anonymously blackmail Big Dave, since public knowledge of the affair would ruin Big Dave's reputation as well as his marriage.
Matters take a decidedly noirish turn at this point: The blackmail scheme leads to murder; the evidence points to the wrong person; and a general air of malaise settles over most of the characters. The "winter of our discontent" feeling that marks most noirs is captured rather nicely by the Coens, but what they botch are the sound fundamentals of the twisty noir plot. From the beginning of the story's mystery angle to the very end of the film, the Coens dig up more gaping plotholes than any self-respecting thriller can afford. Is it nitpicking to be concerned with these lapses in logic? Not at all. If I'm going to take generic junk like Domestic Disturbance and Along Came a Spider to task for sloppy plotting, then it would be unfair to excuse the Coens simply because they work on a grander scale.
Besides, the breakdown of the story structure is hardly the only thing wrong with the film. The Coens have often delighted in building entire scenes out of non sequiturs -- take, for instance, the superb sequence in Fargo in which McDormand's character gets hit upon in the restaurant by a former classmate -- but their flights of fancy in this picture aren't delightful asides as much as awkward intrusions; this is especially true in the segments in which the Roswell headlines of the era serve as the linchpin for a supernatural angle that's poorly developed.
Still, despite these major reservations, there's enough in The Man Who Wasn't There to make it worthy of a marginal recommendation. Besides the luminous look and Thornton's understated performance (clearly preferable to the one he delivers in the current Bandits), there's also nice work by McDormand (whose character is given some unexpected shadings, removing her from the realm of poisonous femme fatales), Scarlett Johansson (Ghost World) as a teenager who brings out Ed's paternal instinct, and especially Tony Shalhoub as a high-priced lawyer whose city slicker ways offer a marked contrast to Ed's humble demeanor. And while the path leading up to it may be rocky, the denouement is nicely handled and follows in the best noir tradition.
The Man Who Wasn't There may not represent the talented Coens at their pinnacle, but it still demonstrates that the brothers are determined to make their presence known one way or another.