Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a simple man. A quiet and chain-smoking barber. Heck he wouldn’t even call himself a barber; he just cuts the hair. Leading an unassuming and not exciting life, Ed seems discontent. Ed’s ambition reverses, however, when an investment opportunity presents itself: dry-cleaning. Unfortunately, like most of the Coen Brothers’ protagonists the solution also presents itself: crime.
The premise for the Coens’ “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001) is actually the least interesting component of the film. The tremendous black and white visual style and commitment to the film noir genre develop one of their most compelling dramas.
They have an uncanny knack for inciting empathy for characters who commit rather terrible acts, i.e. murder, extortion, etc., and that’s also the case here. Ed is constantly beat down by his cheating wife (brilliantly played by Frances McDormand) and he’s always been the second chair barber at his brother-in-law’s shop. The concept of a person stuck in a rut finally finding a drive to achieve success is a universal underdog story for which most people would cheer.
And then the Coens flip that on its head. A ransom letter sent to his wife’s boss and lover, who is also Ed’s good friend, is the height of Ed’s creativity in finding the investment capital he needs.
This is one of the their more compact and tightly constructed films. The only variant plot tangent comes from Scarlett Johansson’s character, Birdy, a teenage girl who Ed views as a piano prodigy. This other instance of undeniable ambition from Ed seeking to help her achieve her dreams is occasionally touching despite the subtext which apparently only Birdy understands.
The cinematography is by far the most memorable aspect of the film. The way Roger Deakins and the Coens manipulate shadows and light within the black and white context solidifies this as one of their most beautiful films and arguably one of the best modern black and white films.
“The Man Who Wasn’t There” may not be their most emotionally involved or thought-provoking film, but its substance lies in the collaborative craft. Subtract one element from this film (cast, crew, or concept), and the Coens would have given us an entirely different film and most likely not one that is such a delight to watch.
A Few Notes:
- The over-the-shoulder shot of Ed smoking his cigarette on his front porch is an all-time favorite for me.
- It’s a shame the great James Gandolfini only had this one film with the Coens. He lights up their dialogue with charisma that even the best actors often don’t.
- A really fantastic moment is when Gandolfini’s character gives Ed a Cuban cigar to smoke and Ed just kind of takes a puff and frowns and then instinctively reaches for the cigarettes in his pocket.
- I might be wrong but up to this point I believe McDormand and Jon Polito are the Coens’ most used actors.
- I finally had an excuse to watch the newly released Blu Ray copy of this for A Very Coen January and I couldn’t be happier. It’s a marvel that it took this long to get a Blu Ray transfer.