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 Continue reading

Suffer the little children

I missed Monster’s Ball when it was on at the cinema, and I never really went out of my way to see it on TV. There’s no particular reason for this – except, perhaps, that there seemed to be more talk about the fairly explicit sex scene between Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton than about anything else. Okay, a good sex scene can make a film better (Don’t Look Now, I’m ogling you!), but there’d better be something beyond copulatory goodness.

Marc Forster, the director of Monster’s Ball, is one of the few Swiss people who’ve made it big in Hollywood – so big in fact that he’s now doing the new James Bond movie. He seems to be comfortable in many different genres and he gets in the good actors.

Stranger than Fiction

And yet. I wasn’t too keen on Stranger than Fiction, a film that desperately wanted to be more clever than it really was. True, Will Ferrell put in a fairly poignant performance, and I always enjoy watching Maggie Gyllenhaal, but all in all the movie felt like Charlie Kaufman Light, turning its metafictional veneer to the service of an essentially trite Carpe Diem story. And what was worse (at least for me): the book that the critically acclaimed author played by Emma Thompson was writing was drivel of the worst sort. It wasn’t even a parody of literary fiction – it was the sort of thing that a decidedly mediocre first-term creative writing student might cobble together, feeling awfully proud of himself.

Last week we watched Finding Neverland. Again, Forster’s assembled a lovely cast of actors: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman. The film is well crafted, obviously. But the story and dialogues render their work disappointingly toothless. Most of the performances are adequate, but let’s face it: it doesn’t take much to get an adequate performance from these actors. It’s more difficult to get a bad performance from them. But what can they do, when their characters can all be summarised in two sentences without being reductive?

Finding Neverland

There are small joys in both films. Dustin Hoffman is understated but great fun, both as the theatre impressario and as Stranger than Fiction’s literary critic. (I just wish he’d say what is so blatantly obvious – that the book Will Ferrell’s character is in is badly written rubbish.) And Freddy Highmore (who went on to play with Johnny Depp yet again in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is great. Not only is his acting subtle and moving, his character is probably the only one in the film who is ambivalent, who has depth, who doesn’t fit comfortably into a well-worn cliché.

Talking of children: perhaps the strangest, sweetest sight in any Deadwood episode is that of the school children lined up behind Joanie Stubbs and Calamity Jane holding hands, walking down the thoroughfare to their new school. For a few moments, the scheming and bloodshed comes to a complete halt as the inhabitants of Deadwood come out to watch the children. I have a feeling, though, that “Amateur Night” will be the last episode of the season (and, sadly, series) that will allow for such peace and quiet. Something is going to happen, and it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. I’ve rarely seen a series that managed as well to ratch up the tension. Somehow I have the distinct impression that the title of a recent P.T. Anderson film will describe the last three episodes of the series quite accurately.

And no, I don’t mean Punch Drunk Love.

The death of Cranes

Today’s blog entry is about Japanese poetry.

 Not.

The Man Who Wasn’t There isn’t usually one of the films by the Coen brothers that people mention first. You’ve got Fargo people and you’ve got The Big Lebowski people, and sometimes you get an elitist or purist who swears by Blood Simple. Then you’ve got the ‘bad’ Coen films that most people agree to be substandard: Intolerable Cruelty, The Hudsucker Proxy (which I’ve never seen), Ladykillers. For some reason, TMWWT falls under most people’s Coen radar.

There he is! (Or is he…?)

Which I don’t get. I saw the film yesterday evening, perhaps for the fifth or sixth time, and it gets to me every time. In terms of sheer craft, it’s up there with the Coens’ best: the black and white cinematography is gorgeous to look at, as rich and evocative as the best film noir. The music – half Beethoven, half Carter Burwell (the Coens’ regular composer) – is simple and subtle, yet spot on. The script deftly intertwines film noir elements with the absurdity that many of the brothers’ films have, so that the references to ’40s and ’50s sci-fi do not feel out of place (unless you’re a stickler for Generic Purity(tm) – in which case the Coens are probably not to your taste anyway).

More than every other film by the Coens, I find that TMWWT mixes the comic and the tragic beautifully. The sort of postmodern game that they tend to play in their movies is tricky: the films foreground their parodic elements, they revel in their artifice. This film isn’t different: consider, for instance, the scene after the wedding, where Ed puts the drunk, sleepy Doris to bed, and the voice-over starts the story of how they met and got together. This is interrupted by the phonecall that leads to Ed killing Big Dave (James Gandolfini, with more than a touch of Tony Soprano), but afterwards Ed comes back home, sits down on the bed again and continues the Ed & Doris story as if nothing had happened.

No man there, definitely…

Perhaps more than the other films by the Coen brothers, TMWWT doesn’t shy away from pathos, even if there’s always the element of humour. One of the scenes with the Cranes’ arrogant, egomaniac lawyer Freddy Riefenschneider has Ed basically confessing to the killing in front of Riefenschneider but, more importantly, in front of his wife – and she realises what has happened and that Ed knew about her affair. Frances McDormand’s acting, without a single line, is masterful in conveying her heartbreak.

The film’s handling of tones and styles culminates in its final scene – a scene that only the Coens could have pulled off. If you haven’t seen the film, don’t watch the following video. If you have seen the film, watch the scene and then go and watch the film again. You’ll find gems that you may not remember.