A Cut Below

The alternative press hasn't been kind thus far to the Coens' movie, which screened at Cannes last spring and tied (with Mulholland Drive) for the director's prize there. Words like jejune, fatuous, and phony crop up even in glancing critiques. The Man Who Wasn't There is not that bad. But its arty self-aggrandizement is irritating, mostly because the film contains the germ of an honest and compelling story. Clear away the hyperbolic monologues and metaphors, the fetishized downfalls, and there is Big Dave asking Ed: What kind of man are you? And there's Thornton, as Ed, trying to figure it out: humbly cutting hair he will humbly cut again next week; loving a woman he can't understand (who may make more money than he does); drawing in and breathing out the same smoky air, like any other polluting factory. What are a man's purposes (small p) these days? What is a man when he's no longer a trailblazing hero? The Coens hold their crafty hands over their eyes: They can't bear to look.

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