A small town in the late 1940s. Barber Ed, realising his wife Doris is having an affair, plots blackmail, but nothing goes according to plan and Doris is arrested for murder. Meanwhile, Ed is strangely interested in Birdy, a teenage pianist he believes could be a star.
The Coen brothers continue to riff off the styles of great American crime writers, following their Dashiell Hammett (Miller's Crossing) and Raymond Chandler (The Big Lebowski) films, with this variation on themes by James M. Cain.
Early film versions of Cain's Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice streamlined his distinctive third acts, which seem like left-field sequels to the main stories. But here, the Cain homage carries through to The Man Who Wasn't There's strange finale, with the hero collapsing as ironies unnoticed earlier spin round to trap him.
After the popular acceptance of the Coen style in such warm-ish movies as The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, this is a chilly film, in stark black and white, as if the brothers want to get back to their core audience.
Surrounded by motormouths, Ed - played by Thornton in a somehow disturbing toupee - keeps to himself. Sometimes he's distracted by tiny details or odd crusades, but usually he's uncommitted to any of his ambitions and unresentful of the worst that fate deals him. Ed refuses to take part in the story he is narrating or make any moral judgement at all, even on people who have done him enormous wrongs.
The Coens' trademark wry dialogue is present, with a literary love for the odd, everyday turn of phrase, and the terrific cast fit in perfectly with the style. Devotees note: a spinning hubcap/flying saucer serves the visual function here that in earlier Coen films was taken by a hat, a hula-hoop, a tumbleweed and a tin of pomade.
Slowly paced for a thriller and with a hero many will find off-putting, this is nevertheless a gripping, unusual and challenging work from the most consistently brilliant filmmakers of the last decade.