The Coen Brothers have done it again!
If by "it" you mean "made another soulless, self-referential piece of pastiche," then you'd be exactly right. Once again, the Coens indulge their love of film noir, and, techincally, manage to get it almost exactly right. The film looks perfect. There are lots of vertical shafts of dark and light. Billy Bob Thornton's face is full of interesting shading. Visually, the film moves as though it were actually made 50-some years ago (with a couple exceptions -- the Coens can't indulge their Busby Berkeley-by-way-of-MTV visual impulses for an entire shoot, apparently, so the film does break character in a few spots, thereby ruining the one aspect of the film they managed to get right)
But once you get past the visual aspect, The Man Who Wasn't There has some flaws that run very deep, starting with the performances. Not Billy Bob. He does a great job of expressing virtually no emotion and, in doing so, manages to retain his dignity throughout the film. Sadly, the same cannot be said for most of the supporting cast. Michael Badalucco, Jon Polito, and Tony Shalhoub all seem more than willing to portray shrill, shrieking charicatures instead of actually, you know, acting. I'm sure it's not their fault. The Coen Brothers have shown, over the years, a remarkably ability to get otherwise decent actors to complete forgo any attempts to make their character seem even vaguely like a real person. While this approach works fine in lighter comedic works like Raising Arizona, it becomes disconcertingly annoying in a "drama" like this.
As annoying as the acting is, the hamhanded attempts to wedge existential/postmodern thinking into the movie hurt. I mean, caused physical pain. Tony Shalhoub's defense attorney going on and on about Heisenberg was truly painful. I understand the idea of interpreting classic film noir as the closest filmic version of existentialism, and even claiming it as the first mass-culture rumblings of postmodern discontent, but to be so blatant and explicit in shoe-horning the "content" into the film is not something to be rewarded with praise, but solely with scorn.
Rating: D (Not actually a film noir, but a shallow facsimile thereof)Reviewed by Padgett Arango