In a barbershop in a post-WWII Sacramento suburb, a man casts a stare of at least a thousand yards, disengaged from his surroundings. His thoughts, and the opening lines of The Man Who Wasn't There, encapsulate the muted distress of his situation: "Yeah, I worked in a barbershop. But I never considered myself a barber." Whether cutting hair, attending bingo with wife Frances McDormand, or entertaining at home, the man, played by Billy Bob Thornton, carries the same expression of unbelieving alienation. He might be unsure how he got himself into his present situation, or he might be unsure whether he's in it at all. The latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, The Man Who Wasn't There looks like a film noir (shot in black and white by the extraordinary Roger Deakins) and would play like one even without Thornton's Jim Thompson-like, slightly off-kilter narration. As with every Coen film, however, the setting is the most crucial element. Here, the brothers link noir cinema with other wartime products. A chance meeting with a haircut-seeking entrepreneur (Jon Polito), who's attempting to capitalize on the post-war economic explosion with a new process called dry cleaning, puts Thornton in search of $10,000 in investment capital. Though seemingly unaffected by the situation itself, he tries to obtain the money by blackmailing James Gandolfini, whom Thornton suspects of having an affair with McDormand. The plan unravels almost immediately. Thornton's disposition may steel him against the acts he commits, but it does little to keep the consequences at bay; he's a hero out of Camus or Walker Percy let loose in a world run by Zig Ziglar and Perry Mason. As the film progresses, he becomes a kind of everyman, even if most characters have a difficult time remembering his name. In the past, the complaint most frequently directed at the Coens was that their films worked best as mechanical exercises. That criticism was never valid, but the team's recent films have made it look more misguided than ever. Still clockwork-exact and still achingly funny, The Man, like its immediate predecessor (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), skates across a thick layer of subtly suggested, richly realized themes, examining how movements in history, philosophy, science, and art inevitably situate themselves amongst tract houses, diners, and barbershops. Here, the Coens create a world that draws no distinction between Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and the moral confusion of a dime-novel hero, a world that feels both familiar and strangely true.
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