Man With A Carefully Considered Plan
The Man Who Wasn't There
The Coen Brothers, USA, 2001
Joel and Ethan Coen's new film, The Man Who Wasn't There,
takes place in Santa Rosa, California. The year is 1949 and post-war optimism
runs rampant, as evidenced by the mushrooming suburban homes and entrepreneurial
spirit that burns Roman Candle-bright. In the midst of all this burgeoning
growth and opportunity exists Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton in top form),
practically invisible once he removes his barber's smock at the end of each
monotonous workday. People can't remember his name; others barely notice his
presence in a room. Ed doesn't help matters any by seeming the physical
embodiment of existential introspection.
Ed's problem is that he lives inside his head. Conversation exists solely as
background noise against the deeper issues continuously wrestled within the
tightly wound confines of Crane's mind.
Being the Sartre of barbers definitely has its drawbacks. Ed is alienated
from his wife, Doris (the ever-reliable Frances McDormand), who's having an
affair with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini, delivering a deft, emotionally
nuanced performance). Big Dave manages a department store chain and has grand
ambitions for future expansion. Ed, aware that something is going on between the
two, impassively stands aside, seemingly content that his wife has found
happiness, even if it's in the arms of another man.
Then opportunity comes knocking in the form of Creighton Tolliver (Jon
Polito), a fast talking scam artist who swears that dry cleaning is the wave of
the future. Tolliver is looking for seed money to get his business off the
ground. Ed, displaying a heretofore unseen burst of ambition, buys into the
huckster's scheme and goes about raising the ten grand required by blackmailing
Big Dave, threatening to expose his two-timing to the entire town.
The wheels of tragedy now set in motion, what could have turned into a
cross-double-cross affair along the lines of crime novelists James M. Cain and
Jim Thompson heads in an entirely different, not to mention refreshing,
direction. To their credit, the Coen brothers take the familiar trappings of
classic 1940s noir (adultery, blackmail, murder) and explore deeper issues
worthy of the profundities locked within Ed Crane's mind. Ed's ultimate concern
being man's place in the cosmic scheme of things, what lies beyond this mortal
coil and if one can reach a higher state of consciousness simply by keeping his
mouth shut and observing rather than taking direct action.
The most blatant, not to mention amusing, example of the Coen's loftier
ambitions appears in the form of high-priced lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (the
priceless Tony Shalhoub). Hired to defend Doris during her subsequent murder
trial, Riedenschneider hilariously considers applying German physicist Werner
Heisenberg's 1927 "uncertainty principle" (in a nutshell: The more closely you
examine something, the less you know about it) to her defense.
The remainder of the movie follows the standard noir plot twists and turns,
right down the line to a fittingly bleak end. Yet it's the larger notion of
identity, and lack thereof, that permeates and, ultimately, justifies the film's
own existence. Ed lacks identity because he's spent the majority of his life
pursuing what others consider a modest job. He lacks status because he's just a
guy who cuts hair. Doris, ambitious yet self-destructive, seeks status through
an illicit affair, one she clearly realizes will only bring ruin in the
The Man referred to in the title is the individual who did not pursue the
American nuclear dream after the Second World War ended, the guy who didn't
transform into the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. He's the left-behind, the
second tier citizen. And, ultimately, he's the man whose goals simply aren't
big enough to matter in the larger scheme of things.
The main drawback to this wonderfully contemplative approach is that the Coen
Brothers do not allow the film to live or die solely on the basis of their ideas, tossing in
a completely unnecessary UFO angle that sticks out like an Alfalfa cowlick in a
barber's chair, and a quasi-sexual relationship between Ed and the piano-playing
daughter (Scarlett Johansson) of a family friend that leads nowhere.
On the technical side, this film shines, from Roger Deakins' cinematography
to Carter Burwell's appropriately restrained score. One irritation stood out,
however. While wisely shown in black-and white, the movie was shot on a color
negative before being transferred, thus giving it a more luminous, less crisp
quality that mutes what otherwise would have been a truly flawless presentation.
The Man Who Wasn't There displays some serious weight, exploring ideas
that don't normally make it to the local multiplex. If only the Coen Brothers
had focused their vision more tightly and cut the peripheral plot distractions,
The Man Who Wasn't There might have been The Film That Truly Mattered.
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