Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a nobody in the 1940s: a taciturn barber who everyone takes for granted. He sees a chance to break out of his ordinary existence when a salesman customer offers him a partnership in a dry cleaning business: all he has to do is come up with the money. As Crane's wife is having an affair with his best friend, he sees the opportunity for blackmail, but he has set himself on the road to his ultimate downfall...
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen wrote this muted, black and white and grey story of a man who takes a wrong turn in life and lives to regret it. On the surface, the film is an homage from the cinema-literate Coens to those classic film noirs of the 1940s and 50s, but it has an off-kilter outlook which goes against such simple pigeonholing, resulting in something more than a straight tribute.
Crane's scheming wife (Frances McDormand), who traditionally should be the femme fatale here, ends up a tragic victim; the "good girl", the woman who should bring the protagonist a shot at redemption, turns out to be trashy and mediocre. In fact, most of the characters are presented in an almost cartoonish way, whether they are fast-talking lawyers or flamboyant piano teachers, yet the mordant humour doesn't let them become too over the top.
Only the laconic Crane remains an oasis of subdued calm at the centre of the story, dryly musing on how he sowed the seeds of his own doom, and how the increasingly gloomy events panned out - Thornton hits just the right note. The sombre, slow-moving mood gives the impression of throwing a pebble into a pond and watching the ripples on the surface of the water.
To use another analogy, the whole affair is also like peeling the layers of skin from an onion: we see how blackmail leads to murder, how murder leads to injustice, and so forth, but the truth is always nebulous. A confession of murder is disbelieved, the victim's wife is convinced that her husband's death was to slience him about their abduction by space aliens, and nothing is as it seems at the start. Each revelation complicates the story.
What is it that has led Crane down this path? Is it simple greed? Or did he think he deserved a better life? How could he be so stupid as to fall for a con like that in the first place? It's as if stepping outside his humdrum world has brought the wrath of fate down upon him. Unfortunately, the shifting nature of the narrative, coupled with the deliberate pace and Thornton's monotonal voiceover, may send you to sleep. Also with: possibly the most smoking of any movie ever. Wonderful photography by Roger Deakins, and music by Carter Burwell (with some Beethoven thrown in for good measure).