Easily one of the two or three best American films of 2001, Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There builds its chilly, poetic allure on a striking combination of precision and reticence. The precision belongs to the movie’s language and look, which mine the conventions of classic noir and pulp fiction to give us a dark, utterly hypnotic vision of America in 1949. The reticence concerns the film’s main character–a taciturn barber who stumbles haplessly into crime–and the meaning of the story he narrates. Who, after all, is this curious, chain-smoking, head-clipping criminal? The film’s title truly isn’t kidding: He is the protagonist as blank or zero, a kind of human Zen koan. A Coen koan.

As such, he’s a deliberate anomaly. Every basic screenwriting class contains the unbreakable commandment, “Avoid the passive hero.” By that measure, The Man Who Wasn’t There‘s central conceit represents a nervy defiance of convention. Yet the reason the filmmakers’ dare turns out to be so disarming has less to do with their foresight or skill than with the latest twist of the zeitgeist. Making their movie last year, the Coens had no way of knowing that America in the autumn of 2001 would be haunted by an emptiness in its civic heart, a bereft space formerly pulsing with human life. What perhaps began as a technical challenge became, on Sept. 11, a dizzying metaphor.

Oddly, the Coens almost seem to have anticipated the historic change. The film’s first line of dialogue, spoken by the protagonist’s barber-boss as he scans a newspaper, is, “Says here the Russians exploded an A-bomb and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it.” In one sense, that gives us what the movie is about: America in the very first moments of the Cold War. In looking back from the onset of the next era, with its new forms of dread, we can’t help but feel that we’re peering into a distant mirror (to borrow historian Barbara Tuchman’s phrase), a reflection of our own present unease.

Yet what to make of the comparison? Being such a model of inscrutability, barber Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) doesn’t offer many clues. Narrating the story retrospectively, he starts out with the prosaic facts, telling us about cutting hair in quiet Santa Rosa, Calif., for his garrulous brother-in-law (Michael Badalucco) and living a staid, suburban life with his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand). Things aren’t quite as placid as they seem, however. Doris, who seems both hot-natured and hard-bitten, shows every sign of carrying on with her boss, Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini), an indiscretion that points both her and Ed toward their dooms.

Ed’s entry into crime is consummately undramatic. One day a porcine, fast-talking guy comes in for a trim and starts gabbing about trying to scare up 10 grand in “venture capital” (a new term, it seems) for a brand-new, can’t-miss business–dry cleaning. Ed goes home and writes an anonymous blackmail letter to Big Dave, demanding $10,000 to keep secret his affair with Doris. His poker face and emotional sangfroid showing only minute fluctuations throughout the movie, Ed never explains why he would take this leap. Obviously, he’d like to be his own boss, but there’s no sign why he would risk scandal and personal catastrophe. It’s just something he does.

Nothing works out as planned, of course. The scheme misfires and someone ends up dead. But, as if to prove just how absurd life is, Ed, the central miscreant, isn’t the one who gets collared and hauled off to jail: Doris is–Doris, who’s guilty of various things but not of the crime she’s charged with. Suitably abashed by the unintended consequences of his actions, Ed thereafter finds his emotional loyalties divided. On one hand, he develops a platonic crush on a cute high-school student, Birdie (Scarlett Johansson), and dreams of helping her toward a career as a concert pianist. On the other hand, he does his duty to Doris by using her brother’s resources to secure the best defense attorney that money supposedly can buy–a flashy, imperious smoothie named Freddie Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub).

Given its rogue’s gallery of cartoonish characters, you might expect The Man Who Wasn’t There to be as cheekily comedic as any previous Coen brothers movie. It’s not. Unusually, the film contains no elements of spoofery and the story isn’t played for laughs. Though flecked with droll touches, its tone is mostly one of lyrical melancholy and wry, almost contemplative detachment.

Its most welcome departure from Coen tradition, though, lies in the fact that its characters aren’t inanely ridiculed. Too often in these filmmakers’ work, in movies as commercially disastrous as The Hudsucker Proxy or as successful as Fargo, their artistic claims have been undercut by a tendency to regard their fictional creations with a kind of snickering, sophomoric condescension. (For the record, the past Coen films I’ve liked include Blood Simple, Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski.) Yet the difference here isn’t that the characters are treated with the kind of humanistic realism that we normally get from movies that ostensibly “care about” their denizens; on the contrary, the film’s people remain fictional constructs, deliberately and unapologetically.

As the Coens have acknowledged, Man‘s characters derive from the literary universe of James M. Cain, whose writings produced three of the greatest Hollywood films noir, Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944), Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945) and Tay Gernett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). All centered on ordinary, lower-middle-class people who make disastrous plunges into crime due to a combination of erotic obsession and social ambition, these films blend Dostoyevsky, Freud and sharp social critiques into a peculiarly American cocktail. Yet, just as the Coens aren’t out to jibe Cain, neither do they pay him a slavish, literalistic homage. Arguably the best thing about their film is that they give Cain’s prototypes such an original, purposeful spin.

Much of this involves the blankness of Ed, which is conveyed in a performance of almost sculptural clarity and nuance by Billy Bob Thornton. In stark contrast to Cain’s overheated protagonists, Ed is the human equivalent of a pregnant pause; he seems to have no erotic life, and his dry-cleaning ambitions possess the weightlessness of a whim. What, then, drives him? What explains him? In asking us to hold such questions in abeyance, the Coens do something ingenious: They flip their primary locus of meaning from the presumed depths to the apparent surface, and from the human center to the physical circumference. That is, they induce us to focus not so much on empty Ed as on the visible world that contains and reflects him.

To put it another way, much of what the film means lies in how it looks. While that may sound vague, I’m sure no one who harbors even dim childhood memories of this period (roughly 1946-63, the baby boom’s ground zero) will have any doubt about what I mean when they behold The Man Who Wasn’t There. Put simply, it is a sensual American madeleine of almost uncanny evocativeness and accuracy, an entire era brought magically, if disturbingly, back to life.

The Coens have said that the film’s germ was an old barber’s poster of ’50s haircuts that they ran across several years ago. Flat-tops and crew cuts, like tail fins and women’s corsets and nylons: The Man Who Wasn’t There is about that place in the American saga, and one can hardly disagree with its implication that so much of the era’s soul still radiates from its vibrantly contoured surfaces. (Happily, no aural corollary is proposed–the Coens know that old pop music has been noxiously overused in period movies, so their soundtrack instead offers only Birdie’s classical pieces and composer Carter Burwell’s plaintive, hymn-like score.)

Brilliantly shot by Roger Deakins, the film’s black-and-white look not only renders the bygone period with an appropriately lyrical abstraction, but also, as the Coens do with Cain, provides a significant variation on tradition. While classic noir depended on high-contrast monochrome to suggest a world of clashing light and dark, Deakins’ images (filmed on color stock and then printed as black and white, as most black-and-white movies now are) deliberately goes for a more luminous and richly textured effect. The cinematographer has cited Jean-Luc Godard’s ’60s films as models, and indeed a DVD of Godard’s Alphaville is the only black-and-white film I’ve seen recently that’s as stunningly gorgeous as this one.

Yet, as with the exquisite work of production designer Dennis Gassner and costumer Mary Zophres, the cumulative effect isn’t simply decorative. In a sense, the way the Coens visualize the world of 1949 comprises their commentary on it. It is not simply a place of jagged angles and harsh, Manichean moral stand-offs expressed in black and white. Surely that vision, that understanding, is implied. But the Coens, looking from the millennium, also see an array of tones, and a strange luminousness in the shadows. And that perception points us back, finally, to the film’s human center.

Who is this man who was so absent, even to his own life? To begin with, the Coens suggest, he is every explanation of that life that might be conventionally imagined. We can imagine, surely, all the frustrated drives and compulsions that Cain and classic noir would impute to him. We can also imagine the more intellectual explanations–those evoked by words like existentialism, alienation and postmodernism–which have attached themselves to noir since the 1950s. Indeed, the movie tweaks such fancy and fanciful explanations in having attorney Freddie Riedenschneider build his defenses of both Doris and Ed on Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Yet the final effect of this is as if to say, “Yes, Ed is all of these things. But he is also radically less. And more.”

That “less” we understand: Ed is nothing, the Zen hole in the American doughnut. But what of the “more”? At one point, Ed stares at a tow-headed boy’s sharp new tonsure and wonders aloud that hair just keeps growing. (“Lucky for us,” his boss says.) Later, he recalls his mind’s peregrinations while flying through the air during an auto accident: “I thought about what an undertaker had told me once–that your hair keeps growing, for a while anyway, after you die. And then it stops. I thought, what keeps it growing? Is it like a plant in soil? What goes out of the soil? The soul?”

It is this mysterious “surplus” that The Man Who Wasn’t There ultimately invites us to contemplate: the thing that survives the living body, just as it exceeds and eludes all standard explanations. The intangible je ne sais quoi of any human life, no matter how delimited by banality or doomed by history. There are, surely, few things more worth pondering in this death-haunted season. EndBlock