The Man Who Wasn’t There

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Joel Coen
viewed: Bridge Theater, SF

You come to expect a lot from the Coen brothers. Some of their films are among my favorites, including O Brother Where Art Thou? from the previous year.

I really don’t know what to make of The Man Who Wasn’t There. It looked great. Shot on a color negative, but deveoloped as black and white, it recreates the look of the noir period., though through a different technical means.

Period noir, to me, is like a nouveau sub-genre of modern noir. Rather than envision the noir mood in a contemporary narrative, we travel back in time to the 40’s to the period from which the noir style hit its peak. Other things I have read have even pointed out some potential reference to other specific noir films, namely Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, which, in reality, though it is a crime film, I don’t know how noir it is. It’s been a long time since I have seen it.

The reason for the comparison is the setting, which is the same for both films, the northern California town of Santa Rosa, which is envisioned in both films as “Smalltown, USA.”

Actually, this point kind of bugged me about The Man Who Wasn’t There. I don’t know if it’s merely the local press’s interest in such facts, due to our proximity to the real town of Santa Rosa, but there were common mentions of the fact that none of the film was shot in the town. Some southern California town stood in for Santa Rosa, “Everytown, USA” indeed.

The film hasn’t lingered with me, despite good performances from Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand.

The film that wasn’t there? I don’t know.

Out of the blue, a film that I would have had less expectation from, I might well have found it an interesting little movie. From the Coen brothers, I expected more. So, I have been left trying to figure out what this film is about. I have been lingering on place and period, which, as my good friend and I discussed, seems to play a prevalant theme in other films by the Coen brothers. But I am still clueless.

Well, I know that all of their films, despite initial reaction, tend to flower for me in multiple viewings. I recall feeling the opposite sensation coming out of The Big Lebowski, another film that dealt with noir and california and period and place. I had initially thought that Lebowski was trying to be too eclectic and tried shoving a little of everything into itself, without a strong grounding. But as I saw it again later on video and cable, I caught a lot more of what was going on, both literally and figuratively.

So maybe it will come to me, this film.

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