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USA Home Video presents
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

"Me, I don't talk much. I just cut the hair."
- Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton)

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: April 15, 2002

Stars: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand
Other Stars: James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito, Michael Badalucco
Director: Joel Coen

MPAA Rating: R for a scene of violence
Run Time: 01h:55m:37s
Release Date: April 16, 2002
UPC: 696306031925
Genre: film noir

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

It is one thing to make a film that is an homage to a particular style (in this case film noir), but it is another thing entirely to make a film that looks as if it were literally plucked from the very era it's supposed to emulate. The Man Who Wasn't There is the latest offering from Joel and Ethan Coen, those purveyors of all things wonderfully eccentric and unusual in modern filmmaking, and it comes on the heels of the success of their more traditional comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou?. Filmed in luxurious black & white, under the sharp eye of cinematographer legend Roger Deakins, TMWWT is an amazing canvas of deep shadows, swirling spirals of cigarette smoke and stark lighting that results in a noir masterpiece, and when coupled with the Coen's trademark dark humor, is something completely surreal.

Set in a small California town in 1949, this is the story of Ed Crane (Thornton), a decidedly unanimated character who works as a barber ("second chair"). Ed really puts the low in low key, and when he suspects his lukewarm marriage to Doris (McDormand) is in trouble, he embarks on an uncharacteristically dangerous scheme to amend the situation. Of course, in true Coen tradition, things do not proceed as intended, and it is not long before Ed's plan is misfiring tragically left and right, as he is drawn deeper and deeper along unexpected paths.

This is all about Ed Crane, and Billy Bob Thornton carries himself with a silent stoicism. He comes across like a thin version of Bogart, with a pinch of Double Indemnity-era Fred MacMurray thrown in, and he turns cigarette smoking into an art form here. Thornton goes through TMWWT with just a few expressions, and his delivery is seldom more than a flat monotone. This is not to say that his performance is bland; on the contrary, it is hypnotic in its simplicity.

The richness of the assorted players, long these filmmakers' staple, is again at work here. Coen vets Jon Polito, Tony Shalhoub, Michael Badalucco, as well as Frances McDormand, shine in roles that seem written exclusively for them; Shalhoub specifically is dead-on as the slick lawyer Freddie Riedenschneider. James Gandolfini (The Sopranos) is "Big Dave," owner of a local department store, and Scarlett Johansson as the teenage piano prodigy Birdy, also give even more depth to the solidly eclectic cast of characters.

There are plenty of offbeat "Coen" moments, those small scenes that make one of their films so rewarding. A strange, late night conversation about flying saucers, a dimly lit tavern, a detective walking the streets, an auto accident and its subsequent rogue hubcap, reinforce the general surreal weirdness that seems to exist only in the their world. Deakins' brilliant cinematography builds on these visuals, and the use of light and shadow is breathtaking at times.

On the commentary track the Coens describe the pitch for the film as "a barber who wants to become a dry cleaner." It is that decidedly simple description that captures the core of what TMWWT is about, but it is really the story of how a man will desperately struggle to change the direction of his life, at any cost.

Quite simply, the Coens have done it again.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Presented in a stunning 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, this image transfer is nothing short of being a thing of real beauty. The impressive work of cinematographer god Roger Deakins is easily some of the best he has ever done, and the end result is a visual noir treat. The film was originally shot on color negative, and then printed in black & white; blacks are rock solid, and provide an array of marvelously deep shadows. The scene where Ed Crane and the county medical examiner have an afternoon drink in a dim tavern is haunting. Contrast and image detail is razor sharp. I did notice some minor compression artifacts, but they were minimal. There is so much to revel in with the striking visual makeup of this film, that I can forgive any minor flaws.


Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Frenchyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital, the audio transfer is admittedly a little light on making use of all five channels. The rears didn't get see much action, if at all, with the three fronts carrying all the weight. Directional imaging is subtle, but effective, with fragments of Carter Burwell's simple but hypnotic score creeping in and out like a ghost. Thornton's narration has a wonderful deep resonance to it.

A French 2.0 surround track is also provided.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in Spanish, French with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Original Trailer(s)
2 TV Spots/Teasers
5 Deleted Scenes
Production Notes
2 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Billy Bob Thornton, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Photo gallery
Extras Review: How do the extras stack up? Let's take a look:

A full-length, scene-specific commentary by the seldom heard from Coens is, on paper, a film fan's fantasy. In reality, it is startlingly dull. After listening to this track I felt the same way I did after hearing my first Tim Burton commentary; I guess disappointment would be appropriate. The pair are joined by Billy Bob Thornton, and thankfully he dominates the track. Thornton saves this handily, and despite his best attempts at drawing Joel and Ethan into the conversation, most of the time it's his show. He's a funny guy, and he offers up a great story about a slightly confused fan who confronted him about his interpretation of the film. Joel and Ethan offer a few worthy tidbits (be on the lookout for an abundance of flying saucer-shaped light fixtures, which figure thematically), but their comments are sparse. The track has a few silent gaps, which resulted in a Thornton quip about how easy it is to get "lulled" into watching the film, and to forget to comment.

Interview with Roger Deakins (46m:16s)
Cinematographer Deakins is THE man, and this lengthy interview segment should give admirers of his work more insight. This might not be the most scintillating extra ever assembled (Deakins has to field some badly miked questions that sound a little overblown), but it is a nice chance to hear the cinematographer's perspective on things. He cites his influences, and in general comes across as one cool customer, in addition to being an incredibly talented guy.

The Making of The Man Who Wasn't There (16m:19s)
This is not so much a documentary as a collection of separate interview segments edited together without any real rhyme or reason. The cast principles, as well as the Coens and Deakins, toss out little in the way of substance. A few scenes are shown being filmed, but there is no cohesive structure or explanation of anything.

Deleted Material
There are five deleted scenes, none of which are entirely substantial:
Riedenschneider's Opening Argument (03m:18s): This includes the full opening argument used by Tony Shaloub's character, which in the finished film is blocked by Thornton's voiceover narration.
The Timberline (:09s), The Duck Butt (:07s), The Alpine Ropetoss (:07s): These three quickies are just shots of various haircuts. I did laugh, because the Alpine Ropetoss is another name for the comb over.
Doris' Salad (:14s): A solitary shot of a salad. I don't get it.

Behind-the-Scenes Photo Gallery
This collection of 14 stills is only notable for the inclusion of the "car on a spit" effect that is referenced in the commentary track, and was used to create the auto accident sequence.

A three page insert, filmographies, a theatrical trailer, a pair of TV spots, subtitles (Spanish, French) and a video setup option to allow you to adjust the brightness and contrast on your television complete the extras.

The wealth of extras is marred by the lackluster involvement of the Coens on the commentary track. At least Thornton was there, because otherwise it would have been a complete bore.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

This is a modern film noir classic, properly dark and surprising, from the always entertaining Coen brothers. Thornton's catatonically sharp performance as the troubled Ed Crane is outstanding, and somebody ought to give Tony Shalhoub a friggin' Academy Award® right now.

This is a beautiful film, full of visual treats and solid acting. Absolutely gorgeous. Highly recommended.


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