Coen Brothers' film noir

Essay by wasp22High School, 12th gradeA-, May 2004

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Neo-noir is an overused adjective in modern cinema. It's used to broadly encompass any slickly produced film with an attempted gritty atmosphere and a twisting plot that traps and undoes its usually unflappable protagonists. And The Man Who Wasn't There certainly has enough of the aforementioned elements to qualify as neo-noir to modern audiences. But like with their last film O Brother, Where Art Thou, influenced by the Odyssey and Preston Sturges, the Coen Brothers carry the homage well beyond its influences and into a cinematic statement in its own right. Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is certainly an unflappable fellow or, to be more precise, simply indifferent to the world around him. He hardly speaks, going about his job as a barber in his brother-in-law's shop with complete detachment. He treats the affair of his wife Doris (Frances McDormand) with her boss at a local department store, Big Dave (James Gandolfini), as a simple fact.

He is a man under the shadow of his life's own inconsequence. The opportunity for escape arrives in a sleazy entrepreneur looking to capitalize on that "modern miracle," dry-cleaning. Ed agrees to finance the $10,000 in capital he needs and blackmails Big Dave to do it. The difference between Ed and most of the typical neo-noir protagonists is that modern trait of self-consciousness. He realizes his own nothingness is indicated by the threat in the blackmail note that "Ed Crane will know", abnegating his own being. This self-consciousness is also evident in his trembling observation that hair keeps growing as a part of us and yet we throw it away without any concern. Thornton gives an exception performance, clueing us in on Ed's inner dismay at his ghost-like existence under the outer passivity. This is no small feat since Ed is such non-demonstrative...