From its mysterious title to its black-and-white cinematography, "The Man Who Wasn't There" brings back a bygone era - the "film noir" era of the 1940s and '50s, when Hollywood perfected the art of telling dark, shadowy tales drenched in a dark, shadowy style.
Joel and Ethan Coen, who directed and wrote this sardonic thriller, have been down this road before. "Fargo" and "Blood Simple" use noir mannerisms in similar ways, although they're shot in color and veer closer to horror-film traditions. "The Man Who Wasn't There" is more restrained, taking its cue from the main character: Ed Crane, a 1940s barber living a lackadaisical life in a lackadaisical California city. He's bored and unhappy about his wife's affair with her store manager.
As in many noirs, the plot thickens when a minor character arrives on the scene: a fast-talking entrepreneur looking for investors in his dry-cleaning business. Ed isn't sure what dry cleaning is - this is 1940, remember - but he knows he needs some adventure in his life. Soon, he's arranging a bogus kidnapping scheme to raise investment money and take revenge on his wife into the bargain.
What is it about kidnapping that draws the Coens again and again, in movies as different as "Raising Arizona" and "The Big Lebowski," for just two examples? One answer must be the opportunities for suspense presented by this kind of crime. Another must be the opportunities for humor when it goes wildly wrong - another trait of movie after movie by the Coens, including this one.
Billy Bob Thornton gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Ed, a chain-smoking loser whose own haircut is the worst advertisement for his barber shop. James Gandolfini and Frances McDormand give solid support, and Roger Deakins's moody camera work re-creates the noir look with a modern touch.
Top honors go to the Coens, who've never paid a more persuasive tribute to James M. Cain, the rambunctious '40s novelist who has influenced many of their films. They make occasional missteps - a sexual moment near the end is wildly out of sync with the movie's overall tone - but most of the way this ranks with their most immaculately crafted work. Cain would have loved its dreamlike chills, and so will audiences nostalgic for the movies of half a century ago.
Rated R; contains sex and violence.
Billy Bob Thornton plays a barber who arranges a bogus kidnapping scheme.