The Man Who Wasn't There
review by KJ Doughton, 2 November 2001

Ed is a chain-smoking barber who sports a look of perpetual bewilderment: his eyebrows tilt in a diagonal slope, and his heavy, lined forehead has the worried vibe of a St. Bernard’s melancholy face. This is a guy who is obviously not quite up on things.  He cuts hair in a barbershop owned by a motormouthed, overbearing brother in law, and his wife has denied Ed any intimacy for the last several years.  Played by the chameleonic Billy Bob Thornton (was this presence really the same man who embodied Carl, the pudgy, reluctant killer from Sling Blade?), Ed is one of life’s bystanders. He’s a man too tentative to take charge of his life, and too dim to even acknowledge what those around him are up to. 

Ed is The Man Who Wasn’t There, and The Coen Brothers examine his stillborn life in a black and white, film noir yarn that echoes their earlier films Blood Simple and Barton Fink.  Like Blood Simple, The Man Who Wasn’t There features criminal acts and betrayal, and its main character is a passive schmuck like the screenwriter Barton Fink, whose inability to assert himself led – literally – to Writer’s Hell.  Unlike these past films, however, The Man Who Wasn’t There is so leisurely paced and so comfortable with itself that it fails to generate any buildup.  It’s gorgeously filmed, brilliantly acted, and perceptively peppered with clever dialogue, but to what end?  Ultimately, we see a 1940’s barber get screwed, screw over other people, and ultimately screw up so bad that he’s put out of his – and our – misery.

The film establishes itself in the confines of Ed’s barbershop. Well, actually, the establishment belongs to Frank (Michael Badalucco), and Thornton’s voiceover confirms this. “Frank is the Principal Barber,” Ed explains of his loud in-law, “cutting the hair and chewing the fat. I just cut the hair.”  Within seconds, we get a real feel for the salon’s routine. Frank discusses the tense news that Russia has begun testing nuclear bombs.  Cigarette smoke clouds the cramped cutting room.  There’s a montage of different haircut styles, as customers come and go, while Ed and Frank remain at their chairs to snip and clip. The Coen Brothers have no equals when it comes to getting the details right: just as they made The Big Liebowski’s bowling alleys as comfortable and familiar as a well-worn couch, the filmmaking team create a cozy home base out of this humble haircutter’s shop.

We follow Ed home and meet his bingo-loving wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), who works as a bookkeeper at a local department store.  It’s owned by a bear-sized fellow named Big Dave (James Gandolfini), and when he accepts an invitation to Ed’s house for dinner and has Doris entranced by his macho war stories and boring jokes, Ed brushes it off. “I guess Doris liked that he-man stuff,” he shrugs.  Eventually, he gets wind of an affair between Doris and Big Dave, but even this is met with a weary, resigned submissiveness. “I guess it’s a free country,” Ed reasons.

Out of the blue, Ed finds something to act on.  A shady traveling salesman convinces him to cough up $10,000 for a dry cleaning franchise (“Cleanliness, my friend,” the entrepreneur assures, “there’s money in it!”), and Ed hatches a scheme to snatch the money and exact a kind of passive-aggressive revenge on Big Dave and Doris.  Suddenly, we are in Fargo-land, with Thornton reprising the role that William H. Macy acted out in that 1996 classic.  Like Macy, he’s a man with a plan that’s destined to leave a trail of bodies in its path. 

The remaining reel of The Man Who Wasn’t There combines courtroom drama, mystery, wry comedy, UFO conspiracies, and a twisted attempt at romance, and throws it all at the wall to see what sticks.  There are hilarious scenes of existential angst, as when Ed thinks a bit too deeply about his trade. “This hair,” he ponders. “It just keeps growing.  It’s a part of us, but we cut it off and throw it away.”  There’s a sidesplitting bit by Tony Shalhoub as an arrogant, pretentious attorney hired by Ed to defend a key character as the plot thickens.  “I’m an attorney,” Shalhoub explains. “You’re a barber. You don’t know anything.”

Ed also obsesses on Birdy Abundas, the teenaged, piano-playing daughter of a family friend.  Sitting intently and listening to Birdy’s music, the film’s troubled hero finds “some kind of escape; some kind of peace.”  His interest in the youthful lass precedes an ill-fated attempt to manage her career that brings to mind Travis Bickle’s efforts to “rescue” Jodie Foster’s teen prostitute Iris from her plight, in Taxi Driver, another film about a man unable to connect with the outside world.  Birdy represents something pure and innocent to Ed – or is there a libidinous attraction buried beneath it all? Ed’s too confused to know, but when she reciprocates his interest in a way that’s anything but innocent, the result is more frustration and embarrassment for the repressed dope.

The Man Who Wasn’t There ends with an ironic spin. It’s an amusing wrap-up that’s fitting to the dry tone of the film, but I lamented my inability to establish a human connection with Ed.  A similar frustration has seized me during other Coen film outings.  So impenetrable and detached are the leads in The Hudsucker Proxy, Barton Fink, and this latest effort that there’s no emotional empathy or identification.  When they can couple their brilliant irony with a real salt-of-the-earth character like Fargo’s unforgettable police woman Marge (who praised her insecure, duck-painting husband after his work is selected to appear on a stamp, even as the pregnant workhorse is recovering from a bloody crime investigation), there’s pure gold to be found in them hills.  With The Man Who Wasn’t There, the mines are empty.

Directed by:
Joel Coen

Billy Bob Thornton
Frances McDormand
Michael Baladucco
James Gandolfini
Scarlett Johansson

Written by:
Joel and Ethan Coen

R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
accompanying parent
 or adult guardian.





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