BY KEN WALCZAK
Two years ago, a man named Scott King won a special jury prize at Sundance for “Treasure Island,” a movie he wrote, directed and photographed. Ostensibly, the movie was about code-breaking, espionage and West Coast racial prejudice during World War II. More to the point, it was also a painstaking retread of gritty, no-nonsense American filmmaking in black and white.
Unfortunately, “Treasure Island” was not a good movie. Its preoccupation with psychosexual hang-ups and its predilection for withered private parts (of both genders, on display wantonly though not at all erotically) quickly overshadowed anything King had to offer in terms of plot, dialogue or characterization. More crucially, the film’s revisionist politics and frontal nudity broke the otherwise charming spell cast by its unique visual approach. King seemed to have succeeded, if at all, only in making his audience feel icky, a trick he could easily have pulled off in color.
Which is where the Coen Brothers come in. Having just recently dragged Homer’s Odyssey riotously through the mud, and unleashed upon the world of bluegrass music a sensation of force majeure proportions, America’s favorite quirkmongers were primed to try something a little more serious. Why not follow a road movie with a film noir?
Enter “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” lovingly rendered in black and white, though eschewing “Treasure Island’s” fake film-aging, and shot in the more modern 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (Thirteen Days, a bevy of other Coen works) takes a far higher road than King, opting for mid-level expressionism over pitch-black psychosis. To this end he surrounds J. & E. Coen’s characters with a splendid array of dark gray tones, plunging them into the inky depths at the corners of his frame only when absolutely necessary. This really shouldn’t work — it’s a less ambitious tack than King’s and one that seems destined to appear half-hearted or wishy-washy — but it does work, and splendidly.
The acting is in a similar vein. Billy Bob Thornton’s Ed Crane comes off like Bogart brooding his way through a recast Ministry of Fear. Again, not exactly a recipe for thespian greatness. Yet Thornton’s is a flawless performance, worthy of its description by the Brattle Theatre (or whomever writes their calendar descriptions) as “note-perfect.” The Coens’ script gives Thornton an eternity of gilded silence to work with, and he uses every moment to his advantage, evoking pathos while maintaining our unflinching respect. It is the kind of performance that is convincing in the best sense of the word. We leave with the distinct impression that Thornton/Crane possesses perfect economy of expression in a word-drunk world, and experience none of the bitter aftertaste of Stanislavsky that so often sullies such impressions.
Frances McDormand is again excellent, her off-kilter beauty and quizzical glances evoking menace à la “Blood Simple” (though with less innocence, frankly, which is saying something considering the real existential ambivalence of her character in the earlier film. Maybe this shows just how far the Coens have advanced as filmmakers; or maybe it’s just something inherent in the genre and era they’ve so successfully evoked this time around). And James Gandolfini plays Tony Soprano playing the Coen type usually represented by John Goodman — in other words, a gregarious thug with no Italian accent, or something very close to what one imagines Gandolfini is like in person.
And there’s more. In true ’40s fashion, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is presented as a hard-drinking (everyone but Ed), chain-smoking (especially Ed) cavalcade into the abyss. It’s clear from the beginning that Ed is doomed; he’s too noble for his world. As the strong, silent type in a language-drenched town, his prospects are seriously bleak — think Tyrone Power in “Nightmare Alley,” if you’ve had the pleasure of seeing it.
As an account of one man’s life, the film is engrossing, engaging, humbling. Its storytelling falters only in scope, as many key events seem elbowed hurriedly into the denouement, throwing off the pace and balance of the movie. For similar reasons, the viewer is also asked to grapple with a lot of voice-over, though this is handled pleasantly enough.
Really, though, the most impressive thing about “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is its attitude toward the era it recreates. The Coens deserve high praise for avoiding the temptation of both nauseating nostalgia (“American Graffiti”) and backward-looking critique (“Treasure Island”), the two sides of a single, obnoxious coin. Neither technique shows any respect for the past. Neither does the present any service, and neither makes for good filmmaking.
Their keen grasp of this truth must be what allows the Coen brothers a leg up on any competition in this specialized field. With the proper reverence for American film at the height of the studio system, they are able to create a picture that succeeds in unlikely ways, a mainstream drama that bears witness as it entertains … essentially, “Treasure Island” done right.