I guess one thing you try to do when you make a noir is to out dark the other guys. How cruel can you make your world? The Coens’ approach may be the darkest of all because the horrible things that happen in this film have pretty banal origins. Where noirs are often populated by people who are hard to describe without sounding like a black metal lyricist – black souls, ashen hearts – nobody in this film is all that bad. Sure, people cheat on their spouses, or blackmail the people their spouses are cheating with. But the things they do are always pretty understandable, even though they lead to murder, suicide, wrongful execution and financial ruin. What’s darker – a world where evil people do horrible things, or a world where normal people with boring lives reach for a measure of happiness with consequences that might as well have been planned by Lucifer in the pits of hell, burning with the glory of ten thousand… I’m listening to too much metal.
In the The Man Who Wasn’t There it isn’t evil that’s banal. In fact, there isn’t really any evil in the form of malicious agency. But even in the absence of evil, things turn out as about as badly as they possibly could have. Misery is banal. And when you look back at the events of the film, as Ed Crane does, you have to agree with him. There’s not really anything to regret. Sure, in hindsight, there are things you’d change, but at the time and place in which the characters make their decisions, with the information that they have, you can never really say any of them did the wrong thing. Real Tragedy. Except these people are pretty screwed no matter what they do. If they had made the “right” choices, they would have still been miserable, just less so.
Somehow, all of this is funny. It’s like a cross between a Preston Sturges flick (to make a well worn comparison) and Oedipus Rex, without either the tragedy or the humor being diminished. The Coens might, literally be the only people alive who could have pulled this off. The humor, along with the noir and the amazing photography work together to create a richness that sets this film apart.
The commentary from Thornton and The Coens is just the usual crap, at least based on the half hour or so of it that I listened to. Too bad, especially considering the brilliant commentary on Blood Simple. There’s also the usual deleted scenes, etc.