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An Exercise in Good Taste - The Man Who Wasn't The

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It has come to my attention that there are some viewers who desire more out of films than cheesy gore effects, lame jokes, and T&A, and are thus uninterested in the films I usually review. So, for the more sophisticated readers, I debut the first of many “An Exercise in Poor Good Taste” DVD review columns.


Since there are obviously much different standards for an a-grade film, there will be some slight changes in review content. For example, there will no longer be any need for the “ONE Redeeming Scene” section, for the films that will be reviewed in this column have more than enough merit on the whole and on their own, that there is no subjective “best scene” to judge them on. It will be replaced by a “ONE Fatal Flaw”, since unfortunately, no movie is perfect. Now, then, to kick off this exciting new column, I treat you all to…


The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

USA Entertainment


Synopsis (complete with minor plot spoilers!):

There are people who mean a lot to us – celebrities, family members, close friends, and trusted employees that we see everyday. Then there are those who mean nothing – the people we pass on the street, without even offering a glance or hint of interest. Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) falls in the latter group. A simple barber in Santa Rosa, California (a suburb near Sacramento), he gives few good words and receives even less. He’s just the guy that cuts your hair. Although content with his current life, Ed wants to be something. When approached with a business proposal to get in on a dry-cleaning business, he finds his boredom in life was in fact so great that he’s driven to blackmail his friend and local businessman Big Dave (James Gandolfini) for the money. Of course, it’s never that easy, and things quickly go from worse to even worse.


The Man Who Wasn’t There obviously patterns its style on that of the original black and white film noirs. In this modern age, where we are accustomed to seeing color films with lots of cutting-edge special effects, we’re tempted to say a film like this works in spite of being in black and white, but the film really works because it’s in black and white. The atmosphere of the setting just wouldn’t be the same were it in color, as it would encourage a false depth, a search for a “hidden meaning” that’s really not there. Suburbs like Santa Rosa, particularly in the 1940’s, really were black and white in the sense that there was little culture or anything of interest, and because of that the towns were interchangeable. Most films choose to represent suburbia as a backdrop for some heinous act of murder or unthinkable fantasy, whereas in reality Small Town U.S.A. is more like it is in this film, a place where people live their lives, and think nothing of anyone they don’t love or have to deal with everyday.


Besides its use of black and white, this film also has more in common with classic film noirs than with its neo-noir contemporaries because its characters (with the possible exception of Ed) are fairly simple, with few ulterior motives. Were its plot solely character-based, the film would hardly advance were it not for Murphy’s Law, which rears its ugly head so constantly that as the film twists and turns it’s almost darkly comedic. Although the twists are definitely unique compared to those in a classic film noir, the effect is often slightly ruined because their setup is fairly obvious. Much more shocking than the events themselves are how quickly the characters shrug them off, no matter how bizarre, and without any hesitation or worry, set themselves on track to fix them, which of course sows the seeds for the next twist.


No matter how simple characters are though, it means nothing if the actor is unable to portray them properly. Thankfully, there are no such distracting performances in The Man Who Wasn’t There. Billy Bob Thornton, looking like an aged, faded James Dean, is perfect for the dead-pan Ed Crane. Silent, with a cigarette to his mouth, he doesn’t bring any unnecessary additions to the character, which adds even further to the 1940’s feel with the trademark intelligent, tough, but ultimately wooden hero. The other leads are equally in tune with their characters, from Gandolfini’s portrayal of the jolly but cautious Big Dave to Frances McDormand as Crane’s confused wife (and ultimately the most screwed over by the film’s end) Doris.


In the end, The Man Who Wasn’t There is an interesting film because it’s able to replicate the blandness in setting and character of the ‘40s, specifically in film noirs, and liven it up by adding in original, modern ideas. My informal description of this is as “the craziest film noir I’ve ever seen”, and despite its sudden dip into thought-inducing near the end, it’s still best as that – a wacky, original twist on films that just aren’t made anymore.



I beg of you to overlook this section if you haven’t seen the film and don’t wish to have any of the twists spoiled for you. While all the twists were interesting, the only one that I didn’t like at all was the involvement of the flying saucers. Ed approaching the flying saucer at the end and having it flash acknowledgment at him bothered me because up until then the twists had been fairly realistic, and with no immediate relation to anything I didn’t really see the point of that shot. If you’re going to go that route, at least have the aliens save him from his predicament!



The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Since it’s a new, high-budget black and white film, it doesn’t suffer from the uneven darkness that some older black and white films have when transferred to DVD. Audio is available in Dolby Digital 5.1 English and Dolby Digital 2.0 French. There are also subtitles in French and Spanish, but strangely, not English.


Special Features:

Fans of the Coen brothers will be delighted to hear a commentary track featuring both Joel and Ethan, with Billy Bob Thornton joining them. Besides that, there is a short, fairly fluffy “Making The Man Who Wasn’t There” featurette that consists mainly of oddly edited interviews (they cut out the prompts, apparently to make it seem like it was a more natural conversation with the actor/actress, but since the cuts are dead stops and starts it makes the conversation less natural) and some behind the scenes footage that runs for about twelve minutes. Far more informative (and lengthy) is a sit-down interview with director of photography Roger Deakins. Deakins goes into detail about the decision and experience of filming in black and white, as well as into excruciating detail on each and every aspect of cinematography and how it was influenced by his favorite film noir films. A recommendation only for serious film students or aficionados, the interview runs approximately 50 minutes, and is too much detailed and technical information for a casual watcher and probably even many fans of the film. Probably the most interesting trivia from the interview is that the film was actually shot on color stock, and later processed into black and white by a photography lab (which explains the clean transfer). The catch is that USA Films was contractually obligated to release the foreign prints in color. I’d be interested to see just how the film looks in color, to see if it really does add an unnecessary false depth. It’s an odd enough experience watching Billy Bob Thornton in color on the featurette immediately after the film, imagine how surreal it would be to view the entire film in color!


Finally, there are a few isolated deleted sequences, but they are hardly eye-openers. All but one of them are “alternate haircuts” from an early sequence where Ed introduces people through their haircut, but without any voiceover from the film it doesn’t mean anything and is only a few seconds in length anyway. The non-haircut deleted sequence is the full version of hotshot lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub)’s plea to the jury that Ed Crane is “the modern man” and no different from any of them. Somewhat interesting, though incredibly hokey, it doesn’t add anything either.



Although a bit lacking in the special features department (there is either too little, in the case of the featurette and deleted scenes, or way too much, in the interview with Roger Dekains), The Man Who Wasn’t There is still an excellent film, one of my favorites from last year, and it probably won’t be re-released in a special edition, so there is no need to worry about “double dipping”. A commentary track with the Coen brothers is probably enough for most people anyway.


I hope you enjoyed this change from the review columns I usually write. I plan on switching back and forth, throwing a review of a serious review or two every so often, so let me know if you enjoyed it or if I should just “leave the good films to Polky”. Feedback, as always, is appreciated. Send it to [email protected], or words can’t express how you feel, remember that materialism is next to godliness. Also, feel free to check my DVD list below for any requests. Most of them are more suited for my other column, simply because I watch those more often, but I do have a few serious titles, and if not, I’m not afraid to rent something and challenge myself.


Until next time…

Edward Robins

[email protected]

DVDaficionado.com list – Request away!

Amazon.com wishlist – Since you’re going to waste your money, why not waste it on me?

"To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about... [just] remember there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste." – John Waters

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