Cinema: The Man Who Wasn't There

Directed by Joel Coen

Affectlessness is not a quality much prized in movie protagonists, but Billy Bob Thornton, that splendid actor, does it perfectly as Ed Crane, a taciturn small-town barber, circa 1949. Everyone cheats on him--his wife, his business partner, his teen lover, his hotshot lawyer. By the movie's end, he is facing his final comeuppance, deadpan sangfroid still miraculously intact. The ever astonishing Coen brothers say their film was inspired by the spirit of James M. Cain's novels about ill-fated dopes. But the Coens transcend Cain. If this were not such great American-vernacular moviemaking--hilarious yet hypnotic--one would be tempted to see something Greek...