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The Man Who Wasn’t There (Joel Coen) 2001  

    The opening shot of the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There shows a barber’s pole as it hypnotically spins around. The film seems to be lulling us gently into its slower-paced, black and white world. The circularity and steadiness of that image manage to say a lot about what’s to come, and especially about the film’s lead. The film centers on Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thorton), a man of few words that works as a second-string barber. Frank (Michael Badalucco), his blabbermouth brother-in-law, owns the shop, and that’s fine by Ed. Ed seems to be contentedly coasting through his quiet life with his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand) an accountant who “liked knowing where everything stood” and aspires to eventual middle-management. We come to find that Ed doesn’t know where everything stands. His wife is having an affair with “Big Dave” (James Gandolfini), her boss, though it’s not long before Ed suspects it. Ed isn’t one to make a fuss, however. He doesn’t give much credence to his hunch, even when he learns his wife’s boss is about to make her the manager of his next department store. However, once Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), a seemingly sleazy businessman makes his way into his barber’s chair, things change. Creighton pitches the idea of opening a dry-cleaning business that intrigues Ed, and fills him with a yearning for more than his life provides. Since he needs $10,000 to become a “silent partner” in the dry-cleaning operation, he anonymously blackmails Big Dave, threatening to reveal the affair if he does not receive that sum.  


    The plot, as such, is fairly representative of film noir traditions, and the proceedings definitely feel inspired by stuff like Double Indemnity. Still, the Coens are after a bit more than a simple recreation of a genre. The film isn't so much a character study of a repressed man as an evisceration of the American Dream (the same theme as in Hudsucker & Lebowski -- my other favorite Coen flicks). All of the characters here get into trouble once they attempt to live that dream. The clearest evocation of this theme hilariously makes reference to The Godfather, which is probably cinema’s definitive examination of the American Dream gone wrong. Doris and Ed attend an Italian wedding that parodies the one that opened Coppola’s work. Frank is exposed as the consumer that he is when he wins a pie-eating contest (with a full stomach!). When one of Doris’ relatives asks Ed why he and his wife haven’t yet had kids, they are being chastised for not producing more. The film’s world is definitely comprised of “haves” (Riedenschnieder, Mrs. Nirdlinger, Carconogues) and “have-nots” (the Cranes, Big Dave, Frank, Tolliver). By trying to be entrepreneurs, the have-nots end up in ruin. We see Big Dave, a have-not, as he imports expensive cigars and spins tales of wartime horrors (which are the only acceptable horrors in the film’s world) in order to gain acceptance. Frank lectures Ed on the similarities between them and the men that run things, but it feels like a lie. The system is shown as it literally feeds off the toil of the have-nots. It always demands more payment for the hubris that Ed displays. His sin is his desire to be more than he is, and the punishment starts with “working for the bank”, and results in the loss of everything. The film’s mention of a UFO cover-up isn’t the only lie that the government wants the characters to believe. The notion that upward mobility exists in America seems just as much an illusion as the resemblance of a hubcap to a flying saucer.   


    The film clearly identifies itself as a critique of narrative traditions when Ed’s narration is revealed to be a submission to a pulpy men’s magazine. The lines between a society and the stories that society creates seem to be blurred here (a trial is referred to as “the big show”). The film is attacking the world that created the necessarily subversive nature of film noir. Ed is an astonishingly repressed lead character, and when he discovers his wife is cheating on him, he can only say that it “pinched a little.” When his lawyer describes him as “the modern man”, we understand that his repression is shared by the film’s society. We discover one character is homosexual, and see that this repression takes on many forms.  Another way the film attacks noirish repression is through it’s choice of the first crime that Ed commits. Tellingly, it’s blackmail. Blackmail only works if there is a truth that is being obscured. Since Big Ed is hiding his affair from his wife (who owns the department store), he is vulnerable to that blackmailing. Since affairs are so socially unacceptable in the film’s world, the crime fits the setting while it extends the sense of oppression. When one character offers another oral sex, the world literally spins out of control, unable to contain the concept of such deviance. Interestingly, the film’s characters do not repress their racism, showing that changes in social mores are not a one-way street. Although it was somewhat socially acceptable for Doris to complain, “I hate wops” in that era, it would be definitely frowned upon today.   


    The film’s strong message is ultimately hurt, by its abundance of self-reference. The constant need of the filmmakers to call attention to the film’s reactionary stance to the film noir tradition takes its toll on our emotional involvement to the film’s events, as do some of the self-referential remarks (e.g. “We were entertaining…”) in Ed’s narration. A lot of the Coen-cuteness gets in the way of what they're saying (e.g. Big Dave’s a haberdasher at Nerdlinger’s), and it's almost as if the filmmakers don't care if most of the audience exits the film thinking they just saw a comedy. And Billy Bob is too much a cipher in this role for my taste... he's not underplaying, he's almost playing nothing (there are a few moments where his observations have profound sadness behind them, however).  


    Some of the themes on display here seem to be present in many of the Coens’ other works. Certainly grotesque characters populate the world, as in all of the Coens’ films, but a lot of the film ultimately centers on Ed’s obsession with cleanliness. “Dry cleaning… Was I crazy to be thinking about it?” he wonders. He sees the dry-cleaning as his fresh start, and his ticket out of his life. He claims not thinking about it is what has kept him locked up. We see many shots such as the ones that show Ed sweeping up hair, or freshly shaven stubble as it floats in water. That obsessive-compulsive streak is prevalent in other Coen films. Certainly, all of their films have such pristine art direction that there seems to be nothing accidental in their compositions, but consider their lead character’s general craving for neatness and order. In The Big Lebowski, The Dude’s driven by his desire to get a clean rug. O Brother, Where Art Thou?’s Ulysses is a confirmed “Dapper Dan Man”, risking life and limb to ensure neat hair. Many of the most horrifying sequences in their films show blood as it dirties an environment, be it a blanket of white snow (Fargo), a literal blanket (Barton Fink), or a car seat (Blood Simple). The singular onscreen killing in The Man… is allowed to be relatively neat by comparison to those in their other films, since the need for cleanliness manifests itself in other ways here.  


    Most distressing is the film’s decision to make Ed such a blank slate. The film’s title can read to imply Ed is stupid (he isn’t all there). We’re never really certain whether Ed is just exceptionally detached or if he’s dumb. His obsession with Birdy (Scarlett Johansson), the young daughter of one of his friends, seems to be sexual, but also seems to be founded by Ed’s desperate attempt to recognize genius. When he needs professional help, he always hires the best. It’s almost as if all of his apprehensiveness and non-action stems from a lack of confidence in his own intelligence, or decisions. The film criticizes his character for falling for the idea of an American dream. It leaves him with no understanding of the way things work, and only a bit of optimism that he will one day gain that insight. Still, it doesn’t look hopeful. Mrs. Nirdlinger tells Ed that “sometimes knowledge is a curse”, and the film seems to agree. The truth is obscured in this world, and she hopes that an ongoing police investigation will “bring it out finally”.  We’re subjected to a speech that espouses the uncertainty principle, which basically states, that the longer you look at something, the less you’ll know about it. This film isn’t much of a riddle to us, but to Ed, with his unwavering belief in the system, it seems it will remain that way. It’s profoundly sad, yet telling, when the film’s last image of Ed and Doris shows them at the receiving end of a sales pitch. Small moments like these resonate throughout the picture, making The Man Who Wasn’t There one of the Coens' most successful, emotionally charged works.

* * * 1/2

October, 2001

Jeremy Heilman