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Movie Review

The Man Who Wasn't There

MPAA Rating: R for a scene of violence.

Reviewed by: Carole McDonnell

Very Offensive
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1 hr. 56 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
Featuring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson, James Gandolfino
Director: Joel Coen
Producer: Ethan Coen
Distributor: USA Films

We all know that adultery tends to destroy families. But never has adultery destroyed a family as spectacularly as it does in Joel and Ethan Coen film, “The Man Who wasn’t There”. In the film, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) has lived a life where he fell into marriage and fell into his wife’s family business. He has arrived at his station (pun intended) in life by not making any real decisions. After figuring out that his wife has been having an affair, Ed decides on a plan—the first real decision of his life—and, of course, disaster strikes. Why does it strike? Because, as usual, these loser characters always choose to repair their lives by doing something vaguely shady.

This black and white film is a descendant of the film noir genre where some loser is dogged by bad luck. it’s a genre I used to like in my younger days. But I have gotten increasingly impatient with it as I’ve gotten older and more spiritually mature as a Christian. But we’ll discuss my reservations at the end. First, let us discuss Ed. Why isn’t he “there?” Well, for one he is silent. At a dinner party at his house, he is so self-engrossed and so judgmental of the boorish Big Dave (James Gandolfini)—whom his wife is having an affair with—that he spends the entire dinner silent. This silence is normal for him and stems from a combination of stand-offish arrogance, a general alienation from normal everyday all-American life, and a bad case of morbid introspection. He is continually comparing himself with other men for better or worse, usually for worse. it’s the kind of shyness that is part pride and makes him a brick wall people bounce their thoughts off of. Why he is like this, we’re never told. And although it’s not an excuse, we know that a sullen curmudgeonly husband such as this is going to end up with a bored wife Doris in this case (Frances McDormand) who needs excitement, or at least someone she can talk to.

Of course, if we know our film noir, we know that losers have no chance of winning. Something: fate, their own nature, a perverse justice, an evil kind of twisted destiny—is going to get them sooner or later. In short: these guys should never have been born. we’ve come to why I simply can’t stand this kind of movie, however well done the film—and make no mistake, this movie is a masterpiece of its genre. The fact is that, as a Christian, I simply don’t buy the “loser” theory. I certainly know that some folks have had hard lives where a whole string of bad things have happened to them. So I’m not being “Little Miss Positive” here. But the genre almost always preaches this “Loser” theory. The minute the quasi-hero attempts to repair his life (in a bad way, as usual) the wheels of the gods invariably set out to destroy him.

Now, should I be getting this annoyed at a philosophy that few people take seriously? Yes. After all, the word “loser” is so much a part of our American vocabulary. I have met way too many people who seem to believe that they are losers and that everything they touch will go up in flames. So it’s not the adultery, the murder, the blackmailing that bugs me in this movie. it’s the nihilism and the hopelessness.

In the story of Macbeth, Macbeth tells the audience, “Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.” it’s the idea of a meaningless world. People with no spiritual or literary discernment often agree with Macbeth, forgetting that Macbeth brought his troubles on himself: God is not to be blamed. Likewise, this movie might confuse a few people by seeming to make a statement about the “good” guys in the world. This film is a real downer and I am truly annoyed that I saw it. A few months ago I bought an anthology of horror stories, which I had assumed I liked. It turns out that I do not like horror short stories at all. Ghost stories, yes—horror stories no. I have found myself trying to take some of those stories out of my mind. But too late, they’re in my mind to stay, forever disturbing me. It is the same with this movie. It is a downer, emotionally and spiritually. Some folks won’t be as affected by it as I was. But teenagers, the depressed, and those who are seeking some kind of joy and meaning in life should not see it.

Profanity consists of about 25 uses of God’s name in vain, with some other minor crude language. Sexual situations are pretty minimal, but do include one instance of implied oral sex (nothing much shown, ending in a car crash before much happens), and one homosexual pass at a heterosexual male (not appreciated by the hetero man).

Viewer Comments
Positive—The man who wasn’t there is not a “descendant of film noir,” it is a film noir—period. (Check Paul Schrader’s, “Notes on Film Noir”) It embodies the very essence of noir. The protagonist who can’t escape his choices. He can only relive the past. He is doomed, in his estimation. In the film Billy Bob Thornton’s character is seemingly not there because he is so passive. When he asserts himself, it is always to the destruction of another. This is not a realistic film and should not be taken as such. That is not the film maker’s intent, realism. It is the Coens’ ode to Cain, to Jim Thompson, to noir in its very form. The film is directed by Joel Coen, written by Joel and Ethan Coen. It is made with the utmost care to craft, something that is sadly lacking in the arts today. it’s a haunting film about a man who never thought through his choices, his options or his future.
My Ratings: [Average / 5]
—Jimmy, age 29
Positive—This movie is a prime example of the MPAA screwing up yet again. This movie did not deserve a “R” rating. It was rated R for “A scene of violence.” It had no “F” words, no “S” words, and no sex or nudity. And yet it merits an R rating? Please. As for the film itself, I loved it. The best scenes come when the Billy Bob Thornton character is alone, smoking, and we hear the voice over. I really like the shots at night, when he’s in a doorway, and a large shadow is cast out. It was visually stunning. The Coen Brothers are simply geniuses! I did think they made the film a bit too slow. I realize that it was to mimic the Thornton character, but it almost made the film drag. The pace was a slow walk, when it should have been a steady walk. A wonderful, immensely powerful film.
My Ratings: [Average / 4½]
—Jason Eaken, age 18
Neutral—This review hits all the right points without giving the twists of the story away. I just want to add that the movie was very effectively produced in black and white, which seems to distill the story down to its bare bones and the essential qualities of the characters. However, the worldview is appallingly gloomy. I was aghast by the end that anyone could conceive such a story and a bigger question for me—what for? I like the Coen Brothers movies. What did they hope to accomplish with this movie?
Halyna Barannik, age 55
Movie Critics

…frequent strong profanity…
—Preview Family Movie and TV Review

…direction is superb, and the acting is flawless. Billy Bob Thornton gives the performance of a lifetime…
—Ted Baehr, Movieguide