The Man Who Wasn't There (2010): A Movie Review
This film is set in Harry Truman/Dwight Eisenhower's America: the 1950s. This 2010 movie is filmed in glorious black and white.
Billy Bob Thornton plays a barber. He is a seldom-talking, slow-moving, sad, dry, weary and dreary man. He is married. They got married, at her suggestion, because: Because, why not?
In some ways, Thornton's character reminds me of Holden Caufield (The Catcher in the Rye) in many ways. But I digress...
His wife is engaged in an extramarital affair with a family friend. The movie tells us that Billy Bob has known this for some time. In other words, when we, the viewers, are informed of the affair, we are told that this is current, on-going knowledge of Billy Bob's character. We are not treated to a moment of discovery.
Anyway, perhaps you can tell that I am having difficulty in writing about this movie with enthusiasm. There's a good reason for that: I feel no enthusiasm for this film.
Pushing on, then. Billy Bob Thornton has a chance encounter with a fast-talking, flamboyantly confident promotional entrepreneur, who has a deal of a lifetime with a lucky person who has a bit of money to invest, in exchange for a silent partnership in the enterprise. The enterprise is, again, the newfangled dry-cleaning business.
Billy Bob (You notice how I can't even be bothered to recall, use, or even Google character names?) decides to blackmail the family friend: Give me a lot of money, or I tell about the affair your having with a married woman.
Remember, this film is set in the 1950s, a time in which "adultery" carried significantly more legal peril, for the perpetrator, than it does today.
That is the money Billy Bob intends to use to make his investment in the dry-cleaning business.
A Mood Set Too Well
Ladies and gentlemen, I'm not feeling this one!
But let me start with the baseline test: Does the title fit what happens on the screen?
In other words, as I watched this package of scenes comprising this movie, I understood how much sense (The Man Who Wasn't There) makes as a title. This speaks well for the coherence of the film, that it was a thing made with deliberation and purpose.
But in a way, that purpose may have been realized all too well.
Oh by the way, another appropriate title for this film could easily have been something like: The Accidental Svengali. There is a court scene in the film which suggested this alternate title to me. I won't "spoil" things any further beyond that.
Anyway, as I was saying: The film may have achieved its purpose all too well. The film clearly wants to set a mood: languid, dreary, weary, tired, washed-out, and blah, just blah, blah, blah, blah...
The film certainly achieves this, "in spades," as they say. However, I never found myself intrigued, that is to say, I never found myself "drawn into" the story.
Because I didn't find Billy Bob's character interesting. Therefore I did not find his predicament interesting. And therefore I did not find his goal, or motivation, such as it was, interesting.
Again, why not?
What it comes down to, for me, is this: I could never "find my way into the character," as they say, of the protagonist, the main character played by Billy Bob Thornton.
In other words, there is no discernible motivation behind anything he does. This is a similar problem I had with the vaunted Al Pacino film, The Panic in Needle Park (1971).
In both films you have the main characters doing things JUST BECAUSE.....
There's no hook. I never believed that there was anything in particular that Billy Bob Thornton wanted to achieve or acquire, in this film.
- He marries because his wife suggested it on their first or second date. It is a marriage of convenience --- a "might as well" kind of thing.
- He is a barber because he fell into it working for his father-in-law.
- He wants to get into the dry-cleaning business because the opportunity almost literally fell into his lap.
- He knows that his wife is having an affair with a "family friend," but he tolerates it.
- He only takes action (the wrong kind of action with criminal intent) when the opportunity to invest in the dry-cleaning business presents itself.
- For all we know, he would have tolerated the affair indefinitely, without the business opportunity.
Look, in The Godfather II, there is a scene between Michael Corleone and his older brother, Fredo, who was discovered to have betrayed The Family.
Why did Fredo do it?
Because the Corleone's adversaries had promised Fredo "something for me, on my own," and so forth.
You see, we learn in a few lines of very powerful dialogue, that Fredo, the older brother, felt like he had been in Michael's shadow all his life. He believed that everyone, including Old Man Corleone, their father, had underestimated his intelligence and competence, which led to him being passed over when it came "the family business."
"I'm smart. I can do things!" Fredo said. In other words, nobody in The Family (in both senses) appreciated his worth. Therefore he felt compelled to seek validation elsewhere.
And so on and so forth.
Now, that is a motivation that one can sink his teeth into.
There is simply nothing like that in this Billy Bob Thornton movie.
There is a few scenes at the tail-end of the film, with a very young-looking Scarlett Johansson.
This is where Billy Bob puts on a very, very, very lame attempt to promote Ms. Johansson's piano playing career (She isn't even interested in playing the piano professionally; Her first career choice is veterinarian).
These scenes are very, very, very lame, in my opinion, because they are, to my way of thinking, dramatically invalid.
Why dramatically invalid?
Because Billy Bob is, in a Johnny-come-lately way, acting like he has a spark of life in him, whereas there had been absolutely no evidence of such a spark throughout the whole previous length of the story.
Furthermore, because Ms. Johansson looks so young, like a teenager, Billy Bob comes off like a slightly creepy, pedophile stalker.
I said that the problem I have with this Billy Bob Thornton film, is similar to the one I have with The Panic in Needle Park (1971). The other thing that these two films have in common is: a sudden, out-of-nowhere, tacked-on, completely incongruent ambition, for which no groundwork had been laid.
Final Verdict: This is perfectly fine for watching on television on a rainy Saturday afternoon, when you have nothing better to do. This is not the kind of film that should have been released in theaters.