I once saw Wayne Gretzky play hockey. It was the second home game of an exceedingly brief career with the St. Louis Blues. Now, I’m no hockey nut – great game, I just don’t really follow it. Being able to see Gretzky, though, was a little bit like being able to see Jordan play basketball or Pele play soccer – too monumental to miss.
What struck me the most about Gretzky was what he wasn’t.
He wasn’t really brawny or tough. In fact, he had a beefy Marty McSorley on the ice as protection every time he hit the rink. He didn’t seem particularly speedy on his skates (though I’m sure he was faster than most) or necessarily bursting with explosive shot power.
What he did have though, was dazzling finesse. The guy never wasted a motion. His passes, shots, movements, hell the way he jumped back onto the ice - every thing was deadly accurate and eloquent as it could possibly be. Wayne Gretzky was remarkable because he was a stunning craftsman.
R for violence
The past couple of weeks have been a good time to be a film reviewer. Richard Linklater and Bob Sabiston came out with a groundbreaking animated film in Waking Life, David Lynch returned to the big screen with a soon to be classic Mulholland Drive, and indie greats Joel and Ethan Coen premiered The Man Who Wasn’t There – a simple, thoroughly developed black and white film that rivals the finesse of Gretzky and the grace of a Japanese calligrapher.
The Man Who Wasn’t There may be the Coen Brother’s best film yet. It’s a sparse, taut black and white film focusing on a barber (Billy Bob Thornton) caught in a nightmare of his own doing. The film provides simple, intelligent dialogue, brilliantly paced sequences, and picture perfect cinematography reminiscent of some of Kubrick’s best.
The plot surrounds Thornton’s character, Ed, a reserved suburban barber dissatisfied with his lot in life. His wife (Frances McDormand) is sleeping with her boss, Big Dave (the ever-talented Mr. James Gandolfini), his partner Frank (Michael Badalucco) talks way too much, and Ed doesn’t really give a rat’s ass about much of anything.
Except for getting out.
When a con artist (Jon Polito) hits town looking to raise money for a dry cleaning business, Ed bites, blackmailing Big Dave for a large chunk of cash. Being a relatively slow man, Ed’s plan fails, causing all kinds of problems (including a fairly unhealthy and ultimately disastrous relationship with a young girl - Ghost World’s Scarlett Johansson).
The Coen Brothers have, in the past, been victims of their own ingenuity. O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a funny, consistently interesting film with fabulous music and attractive cinematography. But, as in The Big Lebowski, rather than executing one story as precisely as possible, they opted for a sweeping, surreal mindscape that didn’t necessarily offer any focus or depth (not that that’s always a bad thing). In The Man Who Wasn’t There, they abandon the brute force of their imaginations and the wildly surreal imagery in favor of a more controlled, focused study of a single situation.
The results are fabulous.
While the plotline to The Man Who Wasn’t There may sound fairly close to a pulp novel, the results are anything but derivative. Frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins develops painstakingly detailed shots that beg for a DVD and a pause button. Carter Burwell’s score compares favorably to his amazing work a few years back for Being John Malkovich. Ethan Coen’s script is not only predictably funny but also occasionally really emotional and profound.
From Ed’s existential angst to Big Dave’s wife (Katherine Borowitz) and her nuke-fueled alien paranoia, the film takes on more than just crime without ever veering into ham-handed Hollywood land.
Joel Coen shared a well-deserved Best Director honor for this film at this year’s Cannes with David Lynch. The Man Who Wasn’t There will easily make most everybody’s Top Ten list and will most probably see its fair share of Academy Awards. The film is a new level of thoughtful invention from a talented team that rarely makes a bad film. I can only hope that the Coen Brother’s powers will continue to grow, and that they will continue making films this good and better.
Funny enough, there’s another movie out there, starring Police Academy alumni Steve Guttenberg, called The Man Who Wasn’t There. The Coens came up with the name independently and had to ask permission from Universal to reuse the name. For a damn funny take on the whole naming hoo-ha, check out this interview with editor Roderick Jaynes.
Also of side-noteworthiness is the trailer for the film, available at themanwhowasntthere.com. As in the case of the film, the appropriately sparse and enigmatic footage succeeds where many other trailers fail.