The Man Who Wasn't There review

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Beautifully performed, technically astounding, fiendishly intricate and steeped in knowing references, it's tempting to see The Man Who Wasn't There as just another day at the office for Joel and Ethan Coen. But those who complain should remember that Hitchcock, initial experiments aside, worked for five decades in one genre, that Woody Allen has been finding new angles on the same themes for a quarter of a century and that Tarantino, the most famous director of the last decade, hasn't so much as dipped a toe outside the crime genre.

And besides, look closely and there are differences. Most obvious is the choice to print in black-and-white, a first for the Coens, with their usual DoP Roger Deakins achieving incredible depth and texture by shooting in colour and then transferring to monochrome. Then there's a touch more emotional warmth than usual, a glimmer of Fargo-esque humanity - longing, despair and thwarted love - heating up those deep pools of black and wintry whites.

Like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Big Lebowski, The Man Who Wasn't There boasts a loose, rambling plot, with the Coens happy to let the story meander. Some scenes linger fractionally longer than they need to and others could have been excised altogether, but this is a story told in voiceover by a man who's enjoying the telling, so just relax and go with it. Moreover, there's an inspired gag that excuses any superfluous waffle.

Of course, just how much enjoyment you get out of this will depend on your knowledge of the film noirs it's paying tribute to and slyly subverting. For while it's not vital to pick up on the James M Cain-isms that form the building blocks - just as you didn't have to know that Miller's Crossing was a homage to Dashiell Hammet and The Big Lebowski to Raymond Chandler - it certainly helps. Indeed, Billy Bob Thornton drawing intently on a cigarette and pondering dry cleaning is a lot funnier after watching the po-faced agonising of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

And Thornton is funny, his revelatory gift for deadpan humour elevating him above even a note-perfect support cast (most notably James Gandolfini and Scarlett Johansson). What's more, he invests a passive character of few words and somnolent actions with real emotional substance. Yes, you could argue that any man who feigns ignorance to his wife's infidelity deserves all he gets, but don't think that he doesn't care: the pain and anguish is etched all over his pinched, weathered face.

Returning to the immoral, double-dealing world of their debut Blood Simple, the Coens have again turned in a gripping, amusing and accomplished work. The unconverted will find little here to win them over, but fans of the brothers grim will be delighted.

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