Cain and able

Coens return to film noir with new drama

Film noir has been good to the Coen Brothers, with the bleak, bloody genre informing at least half their movies.

Noir proves a popular style with fledgling filmmakers: Without requiring big casts or elaborate productions, it explores the darkest strains of desire and capitalism, while justifying violent, atmospheric narratives. Joel and Ethan Coen have done so many noir stories already that they risk getting stuck in a rut, although their latest, The Man Who Wasn't There, is a clinical but well-calibrated mood piece.

The Man Who Wasn't There represents the Coens' deepest immersion yet into the kind of noir exemplified by writers Jim Thompson and especially James M. Cain, author of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

"Cain" even sounds like the last name of Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), Man's narrator and antihero in a small California town in 1949. Remote and taciturn, he works in the barbershop owned by his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco), and suspects his wife Doris (Fargo's Frances McDormand) of having an affair with her boss (James Gandolfini), a big shot at a department store.

In Crane's private lexicon, "barber" is synonymous with "loser," but he sees a chance for a better life when a customer (Joe Polito) seeks investors for a cutting-edge franchise: dry cleaning. That night he shaves his wife's legs while she bathes, and we get a sense that for Crane, water is somehow tainted, while dry cleaning conveys a kind of purity. To raise the money, Crane concocts a blackmail scheme that'll also punish the adulterous lovers. But his simple plan goes badly awry, leaving (at least) one person dead and an innocent under suspicion of murder.

The men of Man tend to be defined by their talk and their appetites, with Gandolfini characteristically conveying a lot of both. Badalucco's Frank is more of a frivolous figure: At a wedding, he rides a pig and enters a pie-eating contest. Most ravenous of all is flashy lawyer Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), who hungers for high retainers, showy trials and expensive food.

By contrast, Crane seems to entirely subsist on cigarettes, letting the smoke speak for him. Thornton has limited on-screen dialogue but speaks in low, throaty voice-overs throughout the film. The Coens make the most of his distinctive facial features, photographed like a mask of rumples and ridges, his watchful eyes missing nothing and betraying nothing.

In the film's second half, his attention drifts to a friend's young daughter (Scarlett Johansson), and in her piano playing Crane sees a last, doomed shot at redemption. Beethoven sonatas play delicately underneath much of the action, setting a tone that's both languorous and sinister, with little humor for a respite (Man may have less humor than any of the Coens' films). The black-and-white cinematography makes nearly every frame look like a glossy snapshot.

Beyond the homages to noir novelists, some of the Coens' ideas here feel second-hand. Shaloub delivers with gusto a legal argument linking Heisenberg's uncertainty principle to "reasonable doubt," but it's a familiar device. So, too, are one character's fears of alien spacecraft, which inspires some memorable, dreamlike imagery and fits the period (which coincides with the Roswell "UFO crash"). Too bad flying saucers have already been done to death on TV shows. More original are Crane's ruminations about hair, which keeps growing as inexorably as the tide and continues after death.

The Coens still demonstrate their command over stylized dialogue and pristine compositions, with even a car crash turning to gentle slow motion. They create purely cinematic worlds utterly divorced from the real worlds, like the inheritors, or at least ardent students, of Stanley Kubrick. The Man Who Wasn't There offers a chilling character study and a hypnotic glimpse at moral decay, but one hopes it gets film noir out of their system before they start spinning their wheels. (Imagine how they'd approach a documentary, or something more recognizably grounded in real experience.)

The quirkiest thing about The Man Who Wasn't There is that it shares the name of a Steve Gutenberg invisible man movie from the 1980s. If the Coen Brothers had called me, I would have offered a title both more appropriate and more original: Barbicide.??