Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Franzen’

“The Man Who Wasn’t There”

July 1, 2013

I leap to my laptop, only pausing to forge my way through unwanted email, to tell you about a terrific movie I saw last night. Here’s my story. 

When James Gandolfini died last week, the obits were full of praise for his acting skills. 


prize-winning Gandolfini

prize-winning Gandolfini

Like most people, I thought his performance in “The Sopranos” was wonderfully subtle: scary, moving and tender, a commonplace man baffled by emotion and caught up in large events. 

Gandolfini as mafia boss Tony Soprano

Gandolfini as mafia boss Tony Soprano

I had seen him in “Killing Them Softly” investing the small role of Mickey, a failed hit-man, with the universal pathos of a Willy Loman. 

as Mickey the hit-man

as Mickey the hit-man, helplessly incompetent

It turns out he had done much more than I knew of.  The papers listed so many other performances, I was scribbling down must-see lists, and came across the Coen brothers’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There”.  What a great combination!  The Coens have done such very clever and insightful work.  On the Lovefilm website, the noir poster looked Hitchcockian, with its use of fragmented faces and mirror-like effects.


Mind you, knowing the Coens, I was braced for horrors.  Remember the wood chipper in “Fargo”?  the sudden murder in “Burn After Reading” just when you thought it was a safe comedy?  the finger-chopping scene in “True Grit”?  That sort of pedigree keeps my watching a little tense.  Perhaps that’s a good thing.

 The film was wonderful – visually and auditorily profound.  Like a novel by Jonathan Franzen, it told a story and in doing so described and explained a cultural condition.  Through detail and persistence, using the hopelessness of the small-town barber’s life ‘of quiet desperation’, both the story and the characters are raised to metaphoric status, imaging the human condition.  Ed Crane, the barber, is played by Billy Bob Thornton, and Gandolfini plays a supporting key role as the quiet businessman whose worst crime is a little gentle adultery with the barber’s wife. 

Thornton behind the wheel, Gandolfini in the background with the barber's wife.

Thornton behind the wheel, Gandolfini in the background with the barber’s wife (Frances McDormand) in the French version of the advertising poster.

Like Tony Soprano, the barber’s tragedy is that he scarcely knows what a human being might aspire to be, or how.  He only knows that what he has is somehow inadequate, and that any change, any future, will be preferable to his present, clattering, trivial non-existence. 


Ed Crane 'doesn't talk much'

Ed Crane ‘doesn’t talk much’


The movie begins unexpectedly in black and white, which gave me pause.  I had to check the connections – but clearly it was meant to be black and white, from the quality of the filming (another delight).  The shades of grey have texture and deliberation.  It was absolutely Billy Bob Thornton’s film – he was in almost every shot, and voice-over narrating his story every inch of the way.  The rich, detached tones of Thornton’s voice/Crane’s voice, the inner voice of a man who hardly speaks in his real life, are strangely compelling.  In the closing scene, you find yourself agreeing with his painfully-achieved philosophy. 

Ed Crane: I don’t know where I’m being taken. I don’t know what I’ll find, beyond the earth and sky. But I’m not afraid to go. Maybe the things I don’t understand will be clearer there, like when a fog blows away. Maybe Doris will be there. And maybe there I can tell her all those things they don’t have words for here.

What a star!

 Rush now and view this movie – it sneaks up on you! I may have to watch it again before I send the DVD back .  Meanwhile I’m off to track down more Billy Bob Thornton movies.


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