The Man Who Wasn't There
***.7 GM
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, James Gandolfini, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito, Richard Jenkins, Michael Badalucco

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These Coen kids don't make a bad movie. Whether it's John Goodman pounding on the roof of a car or Billy Bob Thornton brooding through a cigarette, there's always something interesting going on.

In this film, Thornton is Ed Crane, a soft-spoken, introspective barber in 1950s Northern California that's dissatisfied with his current lot in life, which includes being married to Frances McDormand, whom he suspects of carrying on with Big Dave (James Gandolfini), local semi-mogul. When he runs into Jon Polito, who offers him a way out of barbering, he pulls a blackmail scam to get the necessary cash from Big Dave. Of course, things don't go as planned, and his wife winds up getting framed for murder and nobody gets off lightly.

It's a subdued, slow-burning film, shot in fitting black-and-white, and Thornton is quietly compelling as the central figure, his silent desperation and aching painfully apparent but never obnoxiously blatant. He manages to play a character that could easily come off as creepy and disturbing as hopeful and sympathetic. McDormand's interestingly brassy as his ambitious and unaffectionate wife, and Tony Shalhoub is fun as always as the high-priced shyster lawyer that comes in to take the case and try to get her off the hook. He litigates, he doesn't capitulate.

There are a couple of odd Coen curveballs in the story that are a bit surprising, too. Through it all, though, Thornton is at his most watchable, brooding with an oddly casual intensity and calmly floating through every situation like a ghost, almost as if he isn't really there, despite the eyes of the audience being drawn to him. He carries the film extremely well.

There's a strong not-quite-eerie mood created by the film, bits of great black comedy and characters you want to see what happens to. It's not often that there's a real message or obvious point to a lot of Coen movies, but they're always good stories in which interesting things go on and characters you rarely meet in the real world interact in consistently entertaining ways. You can't ask much more out of a film.

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