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review added: 4/23/02

The Man Who Wasn't There
2001 (2002) - USA Films

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Man Who Wasn't There

Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A+/BB-

Specs and Features

116 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer change at 1:26:58 in chapter 12), keep case packaging, audio commentary (by Billy Bob Thornton and Joel and Ethan Coen), "making of" featurette, interview with cinematographer Roger Deakins, deleted scenes, photo gallery, theatrical trailer, 2 television spots, filmographies, animated film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (14 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1) and French (DD 2.0), subtitles: Spanish and French, Closed Captioned

"This is the barber's dilemma. He is modern man."

Life is dull for Ed Crain (Billy Bob Thornton). He's trapped in a passionless marriage to Doris (Frances McDormand) and barely speaks a word to her or anyone else in his small world. Day in and day out, he gets up, cuts hair at his wife's family-owned barbershop with his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco), then goes home. He's also aware that his wife is having an affair with Big Dave (James Gandolfini), the owner of a local department store, but doesn't put much thought into it. Just how bored is Ed with his life? Things can't be good when the thought of starting a dry-cleaning business with a shifty stranger gets you excited. All that stands between Ed and his newfound excitement is $10,000 to get the business going. A bad marriage, shifty strangers, an affair, large sums of money… and dry cleaning? It's all setup for a classic noir thriller with the Coen Brothers unique and peculiar brand of wry humor.

The Man Who Wasn't There is a good movie, but it's also a slow movie. Though Ed narrates the story, Billy Bob Thornton's terrific performance is one of little words. It relies heavily on close-ups and extended shots of his face to get across what he's thinking. The drawback to this is that sometimes these shots linger so long that it feels like the end result should be something more than a smirk or the lift of an eyebrow. But longtime Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins' lens work makes the trip worth the while. Though filmed in color and later processed in black and white, I can't imagine this film being as good if it were shown in color. The black and white lends an air of mystery to the material and gives it an enduring, ageless appeal. I'm rarely dissatisfied with the Coens work, and The Man Who Wasn't There is a perfect example why. Its smart, comic take on a traditional genre breathes new life and gives modern allure to a tried and true formula.

The Man Who Wasn't There got an Oscar nod (though it lost inexplicably to Lord of the Rings) for its stunning black and white photography. USA's DVD release, with its crisp, defect-free transfer, is a perfect presentation of that cinematography. The 1.85:1 anamorphic image is quite simply one of the best looking transfers I've seen in quite some time. What you get is a strikingly flawless picture with so much texture and detail that it's almost as if you could reach out and touch it. In a poorly done transfer, contrast between black and white can sometimes appear fuzzy and indistinct, but that's not the case here. Black level and shadow detail (all important in a film of this nature) are pitch perfect, and even typically troublesome areas like smoky scenes are perfect. Whites are bright and unblemished, but never so bright as to cause any shimmer or glow. USA Films got everything right with this picture, and I couldn't be happier with the end result.

Perhaps in homage to Ed Crain's quiet, reserved demeanor, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix takes on an unassuming, barely-there presence. While not a bad mix by any stretch of the imagination, it certainly doesn't do anything to draw attention to itself. Surround usage is minimal, even for the film's evocative score. The dialogue is maintained squarely in the center speaker, with the music score and split effects (what little there are, anyway) spread across the front channels of the sound system. Again, this isn't a bad mix, but my disappointment with it is that that film's score (by longtime Coen collaborator, Carter Burwell) isn't emphasized enough to envelope you in the film experience. There's also a decent French Dolby 2.0 surround track for those inclined to listen to the film that way.

The best of the extras is undoubtedly the audio commentary by the Coen Brothers and Billy Bob Thornton. You won't find a great deal of technical, behind-the-scenes type information on the making of the film, but what a fun track this is. The three of them spend most of the time cutting up and laughing at Ed Crain, each other and some of the film's more peculiar aspects. A lot of these DVD commentaries are starting to sound alike to me, so it's refreshing to finally hear one that sticks out from the rest. Less satisfactory, is the "making of" feature. It runs about 16 minutes and is good enough, but it's so sloppily assembled, that you have to wonder how much time was even spent putting it together. The segments are connected in such haphazard fashion (bad cuts, overly long fade-outs, dialogue drop-out at the beginning of each segment, etc.) that the information comes across worse than even the most generic EPK material.

The interview with Roger Deakins isn't much better. I liked hearing about his craft. I enjoyed his work in The Man Who Wasn't There and he has lots of information to share about his work and influences, but 45 minutes is a bit much. It's an interview that was videotaped from beginning to end and thrown on to the DVD without any fanfare. The interviewer isn't even equipped with a microphone, so it's a bit hard to hear some of his questions. There's some satisfactory stuff in the interview, but you'll have to sit through a lot of junk to get to it. To cap off the major extra features, you'll find a small collection of 5 deleted scenes and partial scenes. First up is an extended argument by Ed's Attorney (Tony Shalhoub) that, if it played in the film like it does on its own, would surely weigh the film down even more. Three of these are clips that are only a few seconds in length, and were excised from the montage of various haircuts and styles. Lastly, we got a quick shot of Doris' lovely dinner salad. Tasty! A dozen or so photographs, a few promotional spots and some fairly detailed filmographies finish off the features on the disc.

The Coen Brothers' work has always leaned toward the classic thriller style, but The Man Who Wasn't There is their first out and out film noir piece. It's a highly stylish film with gorgeous black and white camera work and superb acting from all involved. USA Films prepped a superb transfer for this DVD and the commentary track seals the deal. This one's highly recommended for fans of the Coen Brothers and admirers of a classic film genre that, these days, is rarely done as well as it is here.

Dan Kelly
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