Set in 1949 in the quiet California town of Santa Rosa the story centers on Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) who is a second-chair barber in his brother-in-law Frank's barbershop (Michael Badalucco). Ed's wife Doris (Frances McDormand) is having an affair with her boss hotshot department store owner Big Dave (James Gandolfini). When Ed gets an investment tip on the future of dry cleaning he decides it's time to cash in his chips so he blackmails Big Dave. Big Dave married to wealthy heiress Ann (Katherine Borowitz) is not about to let this financial pressure get the better of him (come on now this is Tony Soprano Ed's messing with). Things quickly spiral out of control (someone's murdered) slow down (Ed narrates Ed smokes narrates smokes some more) and then just get weird (something involving UFO sightings and a teenage pianist) before coming to an electrifying end. The film's lineup is impressive: Thornton McDormand Gandolfini Badalucco Scarlett Johansson Tony Shalhoub. Yet the cast seems as constrained as a prisoner in jail waiting for breaks in Ed's narration to shine. The reliance on voice-over narration to get the story across impedes the dramatic and comedic timing and much of the acting except of course that of the Bogart-like Ed. We're captivated by him whether we like it or not--he is the only one that can tell us what the hell is going on. Unfortunately he loses a lot of credibility because although he assures us he's a quiet man of few words he never shuts up.
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (Fargo) did what they set out to do--which was create an impressive smart modern take on '40s film-noir classics like The Postman Always Rings Twice. Watch this movie for the unprecedented black-and-white cinematography of Roger Deakins who takes inspiration from the Coens and turns what many moviegoers expect from a black-and-white picture on its head. Mainstream audiences may have difficulty with the slow methodical pace of this movie and some things drag the film down like the UFO subplot. But the Coens have a reason for all things leaving much to the viewer's interpretation. Perhaps the directors employed the same theory as the defense attorney does in the movie the 'uncertainty principle'--the more you look at something the less you know.