From the Chicago Reader (November 1, 2001). — J.R.
Joel and Ethan Coen stay true to their bent for dense heroes and neonoir, and to their unshakable conviction that life usually turns out to be splendidly horrific. Here they’ve cast Billy Bob Thornton as a self-effacing small-town barber in the late 40s who’s slowly enmeshed in a doomed crime plot. Apart from a couple of screwy Coen-style flashbacks, several fancy plot twists, and a few other postmodern indulgences, this is straight out of James M. Cain, though the high contrasts of Roger Deakins’s glorious black-and-white cinematography suggest at times Fellini’s 8 1/2 more than noir classics. Thornton seems born to play the sort of slow-witted poet of the mundane that the Coens find worthy of their condescending affection. It’s a story that’s easier to rent than buy, but it does look good on the big screen. Others in the cast, all pretty effective, include Frances McDormand (in the Barbara Stanwyck part), Michael Badalucco, Richard Jenkins, Scarlett Johansson, Jon Polito, Tony Shalhoub, and James Gandolfini. 116 min. (JR)