Certain themes and techniques recur throughout Joel and Ethan Coen’s films. Convoluted crime stories with arbitrary conclusions in which none of the characters possess any real agency are not their exclusive preserve—they specifically referenced Raymond Chandler when talking about their plotting of The Big Lebowski, for instance. Such tales have a distinguished pedigree, and they enable film-makers and writers to disclose particular truths about American (and other) life which are resistant to less ostensibly melodramatic genres—in a sense they are stories about stories. They explore the way we tell and use stories in our lives, and relate them to our limitless capacity for self-deception.
In The Man Who Wasn’t There, Tony Shalhoub’s manic defence lawyer makes these themes explicit: in a meeting with his clients he greets a sincere admission of murder as dismissively as if it were a sub-par plot suggestion in a script conference, and in court he gives an opening statement in which he questions the very possibility of a singular truthful account. The story he tells turns out to be a futile one, frustrated at the denouement by the unavailability of its central character, and he is regretful—not of his client’s circumstances, but of the waste of a story.
One account of the ways that storytelling figures in experience, one to which I subscribe, suggests that the self itself is a story we tell ourselves, an emergent property of our mental ordering of the world and its complex series of events. Human beings as social objects appear in the social narratives generated by interaction, while as psychological objects we are constructed from our appearance in the mirror of our inner reflection. The eponymous protagonist-narrator of The Man Who Wasn’t There achieves his titular status by failing to appear in either set of narratives. He tries to rectify this absence, to build a narrative in which he will figure as the protagonist, around Scarlett Johansson’s teenage pianist, but it founders on his total misapprehension of the girl’s musical talent and personal wants. She turns out to be sexually self-aware, with desires of her own, desires which he finds terrifying precisely because they are extraneous to the story he thought he was telling.
Billy Bob Thornton gives a perfectly affectless performance in the title role, as a laconic small-town barber whose belated and ill-advised attempts to exercise agency quickly spiral out of control, spilling out of his own narrative to wreak havoc on those around him. None of what happens is intended, and all the scaffolding that surrounds the story—the compelling acting, the breathtaking cinematography, the razor-sharp sense of style—serves only to confound and defer the audience’s realisation that while these events matter to the characters (several of them die), none of it means anything. It’s all arbitrary, and our superior view of the narrative enables us to see straight through the barber’s attempts to force meaning on it. It’s a life lesson.
The Coens have said that they don’t set out to satirise, to comment upon, or to pay homage to the historical genres that they revive in their movies: they simply seek to make those kinds of films. However, they are clearly much more thoughtful and reflective in their film-making than the directors and producers of films in the Golden Age of Hollywood were able to be, and they make their films on a completely different basis. The classics were made in the studio system in order to entertain and make money; the Coens are auteurs, who produce, direct and edit their own movies with total creative control, and in the first part of their career at least, they rarely turned a profit.
This black and white neo-noir then, set in 1949, is by no means the same kind of film as those that were made to exploit commercial cinema audiences’ taste for hard-edged tales of tough, lonely urban men between the 1930s and the 1960s. It bears the same relation to those movies as Edward Hopper’s painting The Nighthawks bears to Will Eisner’s comic Spirit—it takes the stylistic materials of noir, the outward seemings of mid-century capitalist anomie, and it aestheticises them differently, not for entertainment but for contemplation. Rather than asking us to look past the scaffolding to the narrative, it foregrounds the scaffolding and asks us to notice how beautiful it is.
Shalhoub, Thornton, Frances McDormand, Johansson, James Gandolfini, Jon Polito, Richard Jenkins and Michael Badalucco all give pitch perfect performances, balancing naturalistic delivery with stylish and charismatic approaches to the camera. Roger Deakins’s cinematography is extraordinary, taking the rare opportunity of working in black and white to explore shadow and texture with the sure touch of a virtuoso. The editing, again very different to the vocabulary of the Golden Age, is an essay in taut, measured storytelling, although it does offer an occasional nod to those earlier films in the way that some scenes fade out to black. The narrative structure, built around Thornton’s dry narration, has the stylish insouciance of a Golden Age film-noir leading man. It combines a very serious and important philosophical point about narrative, biography, and meaning, with an attitude that says none of it matters. ‘It ain’t no thing,’ it tells us, ‘but don’t I look good while I’m doing it?’