Drawing on the axiom about ‘truth being stranger than fiction’, Joel and Ethan Coen take their steadfast and fatalistic certitude for life’s quirkily unsettling mixture of pathos and kismet in a devastating regression into film noir with The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001); an exquisite crisis of conscience afflicting an aloof small-town barber. Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is the ultimate ‘invisible man’ – so slight and without guile, he all but disappears into the sublime and stark B&W scenery, sumptuously photographed by cinematographer, Roger Deakins. Jointly written and directed by the Coens, The Man Who Wasn’t There is an intriguing blend of forties film noir with a twinge of fifties Cold War paranoia seeping in: a delicious combination, in fact, beginning as an unassuming bucolic romp (the Coens perfectly recapturing the social rigidity of Eisenhower’s button-down conservatism), unexpectedly morphing into a Mickey Spillane-styled affaire de coeur, turned broodingly rancid by one ill-timed action from the most inconspicuous and unlikely villain of the piece who just wants to be somebody, no matter the cost. Ed Crane’s motivations are hardly altruistic. Yes, he would like to be a more direct and passionate lover and husband. Realistically though, he would settle for not being constantly plagued by the self-afflicting notion he is something of a colossal joke.
Few actors could have done Ed Crane proud. It is a very difficult cakewalk, to play a congenitally weak and emasculated boy trapped in a man’s body without the character becoming pitiable and/or silly. But Billy Bob Thornton is just such a chameleon to pull it off. As with all Coen brothers’ movies, The Man Who Wasn’t There is populated by an assortment of compelling and competing misfits: Francis McDormand (as Ed’s philandering drunkard of a spouse, Doris), the late James Gandolfini (as department store magnet and popinjay, ‘Big Dave’ Brewster – with whom Doris is carrying on), Tony Shaloub (tart-mouthed shoot-from-the-hip attorney at law, Freddy Riedenschneider), Jon Polito (disreputable fly-by-night con, Creighton Tolliver – as fake as the toupee covering his crown), Michael Badalucco (Frank - Ed’s brother-in-law, stricken with an intolerable bout of verbal diarrhea) and Katherine Borowitz (very pregnant at the time, but cast as Big Dave’s neurotic wife, Ann Nirdlinger Brewster). The film is also notable for an early appearance by Scarlett Johansson as Lolita knockoff, Birdy Abundas.
Part, if not all of the enduring appeal of The Man Who Wasn’t There ricochets between the Coens’ ability to write such disturbingly fallible characters, coupled with the Coen’s even subtler knack for casting precisely the right actor in these parts. I can think of no other star than Billy Bob Thornton who could so encapsulate this tragically insular centerpiece of our story. His Ed Crane steps into a steaming pile almost by accident, proving one wrong turn can unravel an entire lifetime. Ed’s fatal flaw is he is less than ordinary; an impossibly insignificant blip on the radar of humanity. Even his profession makes him nondescript. He’s a barber, for Pete’s sake; his life’s work devoted to staring at the back of people’s heads as he clips, quaffs and otherwise trims the tresses of his clientele. Lacking any social skills to interact with his paying customers, much less with the people he professes to be more intimately acquainted, Ed is one of those guys we have all had the misfortune to meet at a party; too deadly serious to let down his hair – even for a moment – and far too unresponsive to make others feel equally at ease.
Even so, there is something incredibly likeable about the guy. Our empathy is with this wallflower almost from the moment he appears. In crafting his character, Billy Bob Thornton has been exceedingly careful not to veer into a clichéd ‘Johnny Dollar’ caricature; his meticulous restraint – at first, modestly jarring – but gradually, then steadily, growing in its appeal. Thornton would later recall a nasty bout of bronchitis, brought on by his chronic smoking habit (a habit he quit immediately following the shoot) that caused him to lose a considerable amount of weight; the gauntness showing through during the earliest sequences lensed in the barber shop, actually on a backlot set at Paramount Studios (ironically, the last scenes to be photographed by Deakins before production wrapped). Extensive tests were made by Deakins in the preliminary stages to see how the sets would photograph in B&W; the initial pitch made by the Coens, to resurrect the noir style, balked at by virtually every major studio in Hollywood. Indeed, a North American movie had not been shot exclusively in B&W since 1986’s Under The Cherry Moon; and despite the success of 1993’s Schindler’s List (partly shot in B&W), there remained a reluctance on the part of the studios to commit to more monochromatic outings. Eventually, the brothers Coen found support from independent, USA Films and Working Title; the picture finally distributed theatrically by Universal.
The Man Who Wasn’t There is set in an idyllic 1949; Dennis Gassner’s production design, Chris Gorak’s art direction, Chris Spellman’s set direction and Mary Zophres’ costuming, all conspiring on an impeccable resurrection, down to every last detail. This is no small feat. Most movies belie the period they are set in with distinct hints of the timeframe in which they were made; something about either the hair, or make-up, or societal mannerisms and mores at the time of their conception, infiltrating and tainting their clever disguise. The Man Who Wasn’t There all but skirts around these quagmires, although Frances McDormand’s wedding crasher moment, where she congratulates the bride – Gina – on her “goddamn cherries” is an artistic liberty taken by the Coens that forties censorship monarch, Joseph Breen would never have approved. Otherwise, the movie looks very much the part of a newly unearthed relic, miraculously preserved and discovered in the vaults; perhaps the greatest testament to the Coens concerted artistry.
After a rather somber main title, brilliantly set to Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor, we are introduced to Ed Crane; even more monotone than the setting as the barber quietly enduring the indignations of an unremarkable life in Santa Rosa, alongside his overly talkative brother-in-law, Frank, who owns the shop. Ed isn’t particularly displeased with the way his life has turned out so much as he has become increasingly bored with its mundaneness. Married for some years to Doris, a bookkeeper at Nirdlinger’s department store, Ed cannot set aside the notion he has somehow failed to procure the sort of lifestyle she expected when they said their ‘I do’s’. There are definite cracks in their relationship; Doris’ chronic drinking, leading to several embarrassing moments, as in the dinner party Doris throws for her boss, Big Dave and his rigid wife, Ann. Dave’s rather gruesome tale about a POW being eaten by the Japanese during WWII, told tongue-in-cheek (but actually a true story), after Doris is already three sheets to the wind, causes her to break into an uncontrollable fit of uncanny laughter. Indeed, only Dave and Doris are amused by this story, causing Ed to retire to the porch for another cigarette. If booze is Doris’ drug of choice, it’s Ed’s chronic tobacco use that will likely be the death of him.
An ironic reprieve of sorts materializes in the form of boorish dandy, Creighton Tolliver, who arrives late at the barber shop one afternoon and begins to tell Ed about his investors who are interested in launching a brand new venture – ‘dry cleaning’. Tolliver explains to Ed how he was stood up on an investor in town. He still needs $10,000 in start-up fees to make this business dream a reality; someone to put the cash up front and thereafter become his silent partner, 50/50. Ed is interested, but broke. However, having learned of Doris’ extramarital affair with Big Dave, Ed taps into a blackmail scheme to procure the money and become Tolliver’s partner, sending Dave an anonymous letter, threatening to expose his peccadilloes to the entire town. Remember, it’s 1949. A revelation like this would wreck not only Dave’s marriage to Ann but also his reputation with the public as a respectable businessman. Unaware Tolliver’s failed business meeting in town was with Big Dave, Ed sends his blackmail note and is amazed when Big Dave follows its instructions implicitly, dropping off the formidable cash deposit at their prearranged spot where it is promptly collected by Ed and handed over to Tolliver to start their mutual process of investment. Ed even signs off on the deal.
At Nirdlinger’s staff Christmas party, Big Dave and Doris’ intimacy is quietly observed by Ed from across the crowded room. While the rest of the guests enjoy the jitterbug, Ed wanders off to an upstairs showroom where he meets Birdy Abundas, a bobbysoxer practicing her piano-playing on one of the store’s baby grands. Ed is mildly flirtatious…well, as flirtatious as he can get, before being confronted by Doris. The next afternoon, Doris and Ed attend the country wedding of her much younger cousin, Gina. Doris gets drunk and grows increasingly belligerent. She passes out on the car ride home and is put to bed by Ed. It will be an unsettling night for Ed too as he receives a rather cryptic phone call from Big Dave, asking to meet at Nirdlinger’s immediately. Ed complies, unaware Big Dave has already figured out who is responsible for the blackmail note. During their brief confrontation, Big Dave explains how he put together two and two and came up with the idea it was Tolliver who had decided to blackmail him after he refused to invest in Tolliver’s dry cleaning scheme. The $10,000 was supposed to go toward the grand opening of a bargain annex; part of Big Dave’s expansion plans for the business his wife inherited from her late father and that he now manages. But to Big Dave’s surprise, when he burst into Tolliver’s rented hotel room to pummel the man senseless, Tolliver gave up Ed as his silent partner; explaining it was Ed who gave him the $10,000 to invest.
Ed and Big Dave struggle in his office. The hour is late. The employees have all gone home. And Ed suddenly realizes Big Dave intends to see him dead for this betrayal. As Big Dave attempts to squeeze the life out of Ed, Ed instead reaches for a nearby letter opener, plunging its sharp point into Big Dave’s neck. The burly department store mogul staggers back and collapses onto the floor, blood fast pooling beneath his fallen corpse. Realizing he has mortally wounded Big Dave, Ed hurries home. As Doris is still passed out, Ed feigns never having left the house. Their lives go on as usual, even after Big Dave’s body is discovered and the murder scandal erupts into a full-blown investigation led by detectives, Persky (Christopher Kriesa) and Krebs (Brian Haley). But Ed and Doris are in for an unwelcomed and unanticipated surprise as the detectives unearth Doris’ affair with Big Dave and wrongly assume she killed him in a crime of passion after he discovered her embezzlement of – you guessed it - $10,000. Doris is promptly arrested; her outlook very bleak.
Unwilling to confess to the crime, Ed hires high-profile, hotshot Sacramento attorney, Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) to take on Doris’ case. As Riedenschneider is used to staying at the fanciest hotels and eating the most expensive food – in addition to accepting no case without a nice fat retainer – Ed turns to Frank to help pay for the expenses of Doris’ defense. Eventually, the financial strain of a prolonged trial causes Frank to take out a second mortgage on the family business. Amidst this hullabaloo, Ann arrives on Ed’s doorstep late one evening, confiding in him that not long before Big Dave’s murder, she and her husband had taken a camping trip, at which time they encountered a UFO. Afterward, Big Dave made the siting known to the FBI. Now, Ann suspects that government agents are responsible for Dave’s murder, to silence him about the UFO. Things could not be going better for Ed. No one supposes he had any involvement in Big Dave’s murder. Better still, the town’s empathy is with him and Reidenschneider will surely be able to get Doris off on a technicality. Alas, it is not to be as Doris, either from shame or perhaps the realization Ed has murdered Big Dave, elects to commit suicide in her prison cell.
Riedenschneider is incensed, but takes his money and departs for Sacramento. Ed now begins to express more than a passing interest in Birdy’s musical talent; offering to have her abilities properly assessed by noted piano instructor, Jacques Carcanogues (Adam Alexi-Malle). Ed’s motives for seeing Birdy as Carcanogues’ protégée are hardly philanthropic. Instead, he reasons perhaps she might be so grateful to him for his patronage her gratitude will translate into genuine affections for him. Besides, as Birdy’s ‘manager’, Ed could leave the pall of his former unremarkable self behind and adopt the persona of an impresario cum older lover. Regrettably, like everything else Ed touches, Birdy’s future as a virtuoso is never to be a reality. Carcanogues assesses the girl plays competently enough, though decidedly without the necessary feeling to ever be truly great. Ed is mildly irritated and even more determined to prove Carcanogues wrong and make Birdy a star. On their car ride home, Ed pledges to give Birdy just such an opportunity to shine. Ironically, her appreciativeness extends to offering Ed a blow job right there in the car. Ed is shocked by the gesture, repeatedly attempting to stop Birdy from committing the act. He loses sight of the road and veers across the highway medium; the car becoming airborne and landing in a nearby shallow lake. Awakening some hours later, badly bruised but otherwise unharmed, Ed discovers that in dredging the lake to pull him and Birdy to safety, police also discovered Tolliver’s automobile at the bottom with Tolliver’s badly brutalized body still inside.
Through his grogginess, Ed suddenly recalls Big Dave’s thinly veiled reference to having ‘confronted’ Tolliver, shortly before their own altercation in the office; realizing now, Big Dave murdered Tolliver, disposed of the body, and likely planned to murder him to keep his affair with Doris from Ann and the community at large. Officers Persky and Krebs come to another flawed conclusion; Ed murdered Tolliver after having coerced Doris to embezzle money from her employer to invest in his dry cleaning scheme. Reidenschneider is recalled to take on the case; his impassioned opening remarks captivating the jury until Frank burst into the courtroom to assault Ed, who he now blames for Doris’ suicide and his own crippling indebtedness to the bank. Reidenschneider has a mistrial declared. But without the necessary funds to rehire him for a new brilliant defense, Ed is counseled by the court-appointed attorney to plead guilty and throw himself on the mercy of the court. This flawed strategy leads to Ed’s conviction. He is sentenced and shortly thereafter put to death in the electric chair.
The last act of The Man Who Wasn’t There is very much inspired by Mark 8:36, “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” revealing a fundamental flaw in Ed Crane’s character – his festering need to escape mediocrity causing him to destroy himself. Of course, the real tragedy herein references that other time-honored cliché about no man being an island. Ultimately, our empathy is with Ed, despite the fact his plans have resulted in three untimely deaths. Without his plotted blackmail, Big Dave would not have murdered Tolliver, Ed would not have killed Big Dave in self-defense and Doris would not have committed suicide. Even though Ed is being put to death for Tolliver’s murder, he has, in fact, been justly convicted in the eyes of a higher authority; the ‘slighter’ wrong perpetuated – the blackmail of Big Dave – arguably done, at least partly, out of spite and wounded jealousy – the fallout boomeranged back onto him. Ultimately, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a far more narratively complex and thought-provoking masterpiece than most critics gave it credit; the Coens performing their usual spellbinder’s weave on a loom of pure celluloid magic.
Universal Home Video’s Blu-ray of The Man Who Wasn't There is available exclusively in the U.S. Canucks, fear not! Amazon.com is more than willing to ship you a copy today. For the most part, you will be pleased with what’s here; a new 1080p scan showcasing Roger Deakins sumptuous and Oscar-nominated B&W cinematography…with minor caveats. In a short featurette included on this disc, Deakins explains how the movie was actually photographed on color stock, converted to B&W in post-production in order to satisfy contractual obligations for the foreign markets. In hindsight, this also afforded Deakins far greater flexibility in lighting each scene. On Blu-ray, the B&W image is everything one could hope for…well, mostly; exhibiting a crisp and refined quality with some gorgeously preserved film grain and fine details popping as they should.
I ought to have been impressed, except there are some disturbing moire patterns brought on by an artificial sharpening of the image, and very unstable shimmering of the shadow delineation on the fence posts as Ed arrives at the Abundas’ home in the dead of night to talk shop with Birdy’s father, Walter (Richard Jenkins). There is also a lot of edge enhancement in the background detail behind the judge’s podium during both Doris and Ed’s trials. Lastly, we have some gate weave intruding on the closing credits. This ought to have been easily correctable. Such sporadic oversights are odd and, frankly, disappointing, particularly as the utmost attention has been paid elsewhere on this stunning hi-def transfer. If only someone at Universal had been paying attention to these minor hiccups, the results would have been reference quality. Instead, they intrude and distract from the rest of their sterling work.
The Man Who Wasn’t There’s 5.1 Dolby audio gets a pluperfect DTS 5.1 upgrade with predictably satisfying, though not altogether obvious results; supervising sound mixer and editor, Skip Lievsay subtly emphasizing certain sound effects to complement particular scenes, like the cutting of hair. Dialogue is presented with effective clarity; Ed’s laid back voiceover narration rising above the other various integrated bits of dialogue and music. Extras are a tad disappointing. ‘The Making of The Man Who Wasn’t There’ is actually a series of interviews conducted on set at the time of production, not a retrospective, and loosely strung together without much cohesion. The audio commentary from the Coens and Billy Bob Thornton leaves a great deal to be desired; the boys and their muse sharing in-jokes that anyone not intimately associated with the production will be hard-pressed to appreciate, and every once in a long while tossing us a fact about the actual making of the movie. We also get deleted scenes, presented in 720i; their severely flawed image quality – picture framed, riddled in aliasing and chroma bleeding, renders them fairly moot. The best featurette belongs to Roger Deakins, whose intelligence, warmth and instant recall about the shooting proves a captivating addendum. There’s also a theatrical trailer to appreciate. Bottom line: recommended, but with stipulations.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)