By 2001, Joel & Ethan Coen had already written and directed a free adaptation of Dashiell Hammett in the form of 1990's Miller's Crossing, and a riff on Raymond Chandler in the form of 1998's The Big Lebowski. So of course they'd have to do their version of a James M. Cain story, to wrap up the holy trinity of hardboiled fiction authors. Thus we come to The Man Who Wasn't There, which takes place right in the heart of Cain country: middle-class suburban California, in the middle of the century, where people think they've got a good line on how to make some money in the expanding economy, give or take a bit of cynical scrabbling, and maybe a tiny bit of murder.

In looking at O Brother, Where Art Thou?, I suggest that the 2000s were the period in which the Coens transition from scrappy indies to well-heeled studio films, and The Man Who Wasn't There puts a wrinkle in that narrative: it's an indie, but it's not scrappy. It is, indeed, a rather posh period film, in restoring life to the post-war world of Santa Rosa, California, which production designer Dennis Gassner, set decorator Chris Spellman, and costume designer Mary Zophres treat with all of the built-from-the-ground up detail of the Coens' most visually wild films, but bent towards history-book realism rather than cartoon delirium. And then Roger Deakins comes along to shoot it, with one of the most distinctive-looking jobs of cinematography of the 2000s (for this trouble, he received the film's sole Oscar nomination): the whole thing was shot in color, but was intended all along to be digitally corrected to black-and-white, using the new techniques Deakins introduced in O Brother. The result is a film that's kind of like black-and-white-plus: the contrast is sharp as a knife, the gradations of grey are so fine that the film can literally use grey-on-grey contrast in some scenes, and when it's not painting in thick film noir shadows, the movie boosts whites and light greys until the whole film seems to have a glowing aura. Looking to name Deakins's career-best work is a fool's errand, and I don't know that I'd pick this one even so; but I do think it's the work of his where I have the least idea how in God's name he did it.

The point being: The Man Who Wasn't There looks absolutely gorgeous, an embodiment of the sleek cleanliness of an America just emerged from the war that emphasises, in texturing and shading, the superficial sterility of the culture then bringing itself together. In terms of evoking a place and a mood about this place, it's up to the standards of any other look back at American in the late '40s that I can think of.

What's going on in that place? Well, that's where the film starts to lose me, I hate to say. It's not that TMWWT shares the problem O Brother has, specifically: where the earlier film feels like a collection of note cards with plot points written on them, this one at least feels unified. Even when it starts to go hazy in the second half and the plot momentum goes from "ambling" to "standing still", there are particular reasons for it. But like the brothers' immediately preceding work, it has the feeling of something that hadn't quite been figured before they started shooting it, and so it goes on at some length before it starts putting that length to any particular use.

The man who wasn't there is Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) a barber at the shop once owned by his late father-in-law, now owned by his  brother-in-law, Frank Raffo (Michael Badalucco). His wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), works as bookkeeper for  "Big Dave" Brewster (James Gandolfini), who also married into his career as the owner over a department story, Nirdlinger's ("Nirdlinger" being a direct lift from Cain: it's the surname of the femme fatale in the original novella version of Double Indemnity). Doris and Big Dave are pretty obviously having an affair, and doing nothing to hide it from their respective spouses, and this gives Ed an idea: when a man named Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito)mentions the possibility of investing in a dry-cleaning business while getting his hair cut, Ed decides to use his knowledge of the affair to blackmail Big Dave into giving him the money he needs to stake Tolliver. This goes well for about two days, after which Big Dave figures out what's going on and threatens Ed to get the money back; in the ensuing scuffle, Ed stabs him in the neck, and with Doris having been last seen acting extremely drunk, and with her fingerprints all over Nirdlinger's cooked books, she's arrested for the crime.

Given that this is a pastiche of hardboiled crime fiction - and "pastiche" is probably already doing too much heavy lifting for something that plays so much of it straight - there's of course a lot of turns yet to go, but it wouldn't do to think of this is a film about the unfolding of a twisted-up fatalistic plot in which a man's petty act of greed grows and grows until he's managed to ruin not just his life, by the lives of everyone around him. That good, meat-and-potatoes noir stuff. Rather, this a curious kind of character study: an anti-character study, really, where the central figure is defined in terms of his lack of interiority or personality. The title has, as near as I can make out, not a molecule of irony in it: this is a story about a man who is carried along a chain of events entirely of his own making, but he never once seems to make an active choice to put them into action, and he never seems to actively participate in anything at all. He's simply reacting, a being of instinct and no meaningful amount of actual personality. If the film is tweaking Cain or hardboiled fiction at all - I say "if", for I'm undecided - this is how it does it, by replacing Cain's men of grimy little hungers and his tone of nihilism with disaffected anhedonia. I would almost call it a story about depression, but even that suggests more depth of personality than Ed seems to have access to.

It's a fascinating approach to take to storytelling and character building, and Thornton, at least, is up to challenge of creating a character defined by his emptiness. The screenplay includes a tremendous quantity of voiceover narration, and the actor approaches this with a completely level lack of intonation, other than the rocky rumble of his voice; his physical acting consists of the very smallest gestures possible, slight nods and twitches of his lip, furrowing his brow ever so slightly to signify the moments where he has an actual emotional response, which is almost always mild befuddlement. It is a work of concentrated minimalism in a film of maximalist impulses: the well-to-do construction of the world, but also the way that the other actors are all giving "Coen performances", though scaled down in energy from the last few movies. It's easiest to see in Polito and Tony Shalhoub's work: they've both played full-on cartoons for the Coens before this, and here they're doing somewhat muted version of that cartoonish energy. Shalhoub especially threads an impossibly fine needle where he's both a fast-talking satire of a shitty but effective lawyer, but also able to evoke a kind of small emotional realism in the moments where he gets lost in his own thought processes, and recites the monologues about the uncertainty principle that the film pretends are the key to unlocking its meaning.

Thornton's performance is legitimately mesmerising, if only because it's such an unusual anchor to a film; he's also the conduit through which the film funnels its incredibly dry sense of humor (this is the most deadpan of all Coen films, without a single moment that distinctly telegraphs itself as a joke). It's amazing, well-controlled work, and perfect fit for the visual structure into which he's placed; if the film is about bright surfaces with nothing behind them, a protagonist who genuinely seems to lack an inner life despite spending the entire running time giving us his internal monologue feels just about right. It gives the film a biting and cynical vision of post-war America even by the standards of a cynical pair of filmmakers, and it's not something the film insists on; but you set a story in 1940s California and make it about a man trying to cheat his way int $10,000, it's going to have overtones about the American Century pretty much by default.

The focus, though, is on the idea of an unknowable, meaningless universe; this is another one of the Coens' moral studies, this time about the terror of living in a world that we now know to be bereft of meaning, and in which human justice is backwards and broken. They'd do a lot of this over again at the other end of the decade, with 2009's A Serious Man, and they'd do it much better, in part because, as much as Ed makes intellectual sense for this project, and as remarkable as Thornton is in the part, a character devoid of affect is hard to do anything with. The film starts to play around with him a bit in the second half, showing that he at least wants to want things, even if he doesn't know how to go about it, and the film's final monologue, and the fully unreal, abstracted images accompanying that monologue, is a genuinely lovely and bittersweet coda for the character, who allows himself to feel hope for the first time in the movie, in the most ironic way possible. In general, the second half is more interesting than the first, in part because the way that the plot dissolves rather than coalesces once Big Dave is dead is such an unexpected inversion of the noir tropes that the first half played almost entirely straight.

But the film still doesn't have a lot of cards to play, and it's played them all fairly early on. One longs for more surprises like the beat where Ed interrupts his internal monologue for several minutes of plot material, and then comes back to the exact moment he left off, the most acerbic of all jokes about his unruffled disinterest in the world around himself; for the most part, once we see Thornton's deadpan expressions and the way that other people deal with him by simply not noticing what a blank object he is, there's really nothing the film is going to for any of its 116 minutes to shake things up. I understand, intellectually, what the film is going for, and I admire its extraordinarily handsome production to no end, and Carter Burwell's pensive music, which feels a little like a more optimistic version of the Fargo score, nestles in nicely with the film's use of some of the moodier Beethoven pieces (the "Pathétique" and "Moonlight" sonatas). But it can be a very flat film, and just because its "about" vagueness and uncertainty and dispassionately coasting through the world, doesn't make its own lack of momentum any more exciting to watch. It simply doesn't feel like the Coens knew what they wanted the end result of this to be, and this aimless depiction of an aimless life makes it unsurprising that their career was about to run into some films that feel like the work of artists going through the motions with as little enthusiasm as Ed's.