The Rear-View Mirror: The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

There are few directors who can look back at as illustrious a filmography as the Coen Brothers. From the early neo-noir of Blood Simple, the gangster’s paradise of Miller’s Crossing, the surreal Hollywood of Barton Fink, via Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou to more recent films such as No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis: though Joel and Ethan Coen clearly have a style, but they’ve never rested on their laurels. While they’ve had a couple of clunkers, I’m more interested in one of their films that hasn’t really received as much attention as I think it deserves.

The Man Who Wasn't There

The Man Who Wasn’t There is a signature Coen film in many respects. The genre pastiche (the Coens like returning to the noir well), the laconic humour, the oddball humour and sprinkling of non sequiturs, none of these are exactly surprising in the brothers’ oeuvre. What is unexpected, however, is the tragic thread that runs through the film and how it survives the Coens’ signature goofiness. There’s a soulfulness to The Man Who Wasn’t There that’s in no small part down to two of my favourite performances in all the films, namely those of Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand as Ed and Doris Crane. These characters are straight out of so many noir classics, the manipulative woman and the eager dupe, but both Thornton and McDormand play their characters with a humanity and a compelling undercurrent of regret. They’re surrounded by Coenesque grotesqueries – Jon Polito’s smarmy businessman, Tony Shalhoub’s showman lawyer-cum-philosopher, Michael Badalucco’s porcine brother-in-law – but emerge as three-dimensional characters, giving what could’ve been an exercise in genre pastiche a mournfulness that makes the film resonate on frequencies that the Coens don’t often strive for.

The Man Who Wasn't There

If it’s been a while since you’ve seen The Man Who Wasn’t There, and if you remember it as middle-of-the-road Coen Brothers fare, give it another chance. You’ll find the brothers’ lovingly odd little details and offbeat humour, gorgeous cinematography by Roger Deakins (almost a reason in itself to revisit the film), a lovely score by Carter Burwell and even a UFO – but it’s worth paying special attention to the film’s heart, which is best seen in the later scenes between Ed and Doris. It’s not an accident that David Lynch had to share the Best Director Award at Cannes with Joel Coen in 2001, but Thornton and McDormand would have been just as deserving of awards. The film is a treasure trove of memorable moments from its beginning to the pitch-perfect ending.


The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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