This movie is a gem, one of those films no one but the Coen brothers would make, certainly not with this kind of panache. Perfectly cast, drearily lit, and leisurely paced, it violates every Hollywood rule and shows why those rules are as limiting as they are.
Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, truly the man who wasn’t there. He rarely speaks, except directly to the audience through voice-overs, of which this film may use more than any other. He has gray hair, and his grayish clothing (this is a black-and-white film) always blends into whatever is behind him. He’s the perfect noir hero: a unassuming man leading one of Thoreau’s lives of quiet desperation. His one indiscretion—poorly choosing the means through which he tries to improve his life—brings down everyone around him as well.
Frances McDormand, a Coen favorite, plays Ed’s wife, Doris. McDormand is a wonderful actress, whose ordinary looks mesh perfectly with how the Coens make movies. Best know as the chief of police in Fargo, she’s also the femme fatale in their first effort, Blood Simple.
James Gandolfini (with hair) plays a crucial supporting role, as do several other members of the Coens’ repertory company, including Jon Polito, Michael Badalucco, and Richard Jenkins. A very young Scarlett Johansson also makes an appearance.
The Coens’ greatest skill here is to make watching things crumble around Ed both fascinating and entertaining. This is a movie not to be missed, the anti-action flick.
One side note: There is not a better living actor than Tony Shalhoub. Best known as TV’s Monk and from his earlier stint as Antonio Scarpacci in Wings, Shalhoub can do anything. His performance here, as fast-talking and -thinking attorney Freddy Riedenschneider is unrecognizable as Shalhoub if you aren’t looking for him. No one has greater range, nor more of an ability to submerge himself into a character. The best character working today.