The Man Who Wasn’t There

“The Man Who Wasn’t There” is from Joel and Ethan Coen, the brothers behind such films as “Raising Arizona” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The new one is paced a bit slower and is more muted in tone than those, recalling instead the Coens’ “Fargo” and, especially, “Blood Simple.” But for being quieter than most of their big audience favorites, “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is still vastly entertaining and boasts several excellent performances.

Chief among them is Billy Bob Thornton, continuing to beat the odds by earning respect despite being named Billy Bob. He plays Ed Crane, a taciturn barber in 1949 Santa Rosa, Calif. “I don’t talk much,” he says in the voice-over narration, where he is much more talkative. “I just cut the hair.”

He lives with his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), a vigorous alcoholic who cooks the books at Nirdlinger’s department store, where she also seems to be having an affair with co-owner Big Dave (James Gandolfini). Ed doesn’t particularly mind the infidelity — one gets the impression Ed doesn’t particularly mind anything — but he uses it to his advantage when he needs money for a business investment and realizes Big Dave would be a good blackmail target.

Ed winds up killing a man, somewhat accidentally and somewhat in self-defense. And then Doris is blamed for the murder, and still Ed remains silent — sort of.

Two different people ask Ed, “What sort of man are you?” and neither time does he have an answer for them. He doesn’t know what kind of man he is. His fallen arches prevented him from fighting in the war, so he’s not a hero like so many guys walking around in 1949 were. He is a non-descript figure living in the non-descript era between the hardships of World War II and the sunniness of the 1950s. He doesn’t really have any friends, but he’s not disliked by anyone, either. Like he said, he just cuts the hair.

Thornton is on the verge of brilliance in this role, saying so much with his long glances, hard stares and to-the-point dialogue. One is sympathetic for him despite apparently knowing so little about him. It’s the sort of performance that speaks volumes after the movie, when you reflect upon it and realize you know more about him than you thought you did. It is rare for the Coens to be as compassionate toward one of their characters as they are toward Ed.

Frances McDormand is reliable as always, earning pathos and laughs with equal skill. And the film is nearly stolen by Tony Shalhoub as a slick lawyer called in from out of town to defend Doris in court.

It is film noir, which the Coens have done before (“Blood Simple”), and which suits the deadpan-witty dialogue they tend to write. It’s shot in black-and-white, too, in case you didn’t get the idea that it was noir, and while it has light moments, it is far more harsh than funny. It’s a switch, then, from what many people expect from the Coens, but in truth, it employs a lot of the same dark themes that have always lurked around the fringes of their movies.

B+ (; R, a lot of mid-level profanity, one scene of bloody violence (that's what earned the R), some implied sexuality.)