The Man Who Wasn't There

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December 31, 2010 by Mark Mesaros

“He told them to look not at the facts, but at the meaning of the facts. Then he said the facts had no meaning.”

Ed Crane is a man who has a perennial look of both confusion and nonchalance. People think him laconic, mild-mannered. He is, yet there’s always something existential lurking beneath the surface. Ed is a barber because it pays the bills; in his retrospective narration that occurs throughout, he says he never considered himself a barber. He’s married, but he hardly considers it a marriage. His wife cheats on him, but he hardly cares about that—“it’s a free country,” he says—having little invested in it. He commits blackmail and manslaughter, but he’s hardly a criminal. “What kind of a man are you?” two different characters ask Ed, one ready to kill him, the other fighting tears. His eventual attorney, Reidenschneider (Tony Shalhoub), refers to him as “modern man” in an attempt to elicit jury sympathy, but the Coens have already answered the question with the film’s title. Then again, the attorney reminds us, “the more you look, the less you really know.”

Ed is hardly anywhere at all and he admits as much to himself. No one seems to be able to remember his name, with the exception of little Birdie Abundas (Scarlett Johannsen) who has a crush on the much older man. Billy Bob Thornton is exceptional in a role that asks him to stare, keep quiet and smoke a never-ending chain of cigarettes. Of course, Birdie prevents him from smoking in her room and she also happens to get more talk out of him than anyone else. It has all the marks of a bubbling romance, but of course it plays out in an unexpected way, which is to be expected from the Coens. Another admission of the modern man via narration is that he wants to have Birdie too, an admission he can’t make to her.

The Coens have lovingly recreated a period of cinematic history and it seems like it was their primary goal from the outset: its sumptuous black & white photography (filmed in color and printed in black & white post-production—a not uncommon trend continued by Michael Haneke in last year’s The White Ribbon to great effect), its driving scenes filmed in the traditional way with scene screens, the attention paid to interiors, period slang and incessant cigarette smoking, most of them consumed by a protagonist played by a man who resembles Humphrey Bogart under a certain light. It has the mark of James Cain and Jim Thompson and the sort of shot compositions and camera movement that recall Double Indemnity and many of its noir predecessors.

Sometimes it seems the Coens have Coenized their films as an afterthought, the usual attention paid to ennui, the sudden violence, the imperceptible shifts between comedy and grimness calling attention to themselves and creating distances, for better or worse. This film perhaps more than any other seamlessly integrates their wonted stylistics with narrative. There may be a few predecessors (Losey’s Mr. Klein comes to mind) but I found the Coens particular approach to combining Kafka and the absurdist outlook of Camus’ “The Stranger” with noir traditions very refreshing. Ed might as well be Meursault smoking and sipping coffee at his mother’s wake. He might as well be Joseph K. seeking mistrial but ultimately resigned to death. The sort of absurdism that informs this work is present in many, if not all, Coen films, but here it’s directly addressed by the narrative and totally shapes Thornton’s portrayal.

The irony of traditional noir, worlds where even the most carefully planned capers crumble due to the smallest detail, is transformed and even elevated by this script. Characters here face the prospect of paying for the crimes they didn’t commit while getting away with the ones they did. When Ed admits his actual guilt to Reidenschneider, the attorney doesn’t believe him and it’s not clear whether or not Ed’s wife does either. Reidenschneider explores the possibility of using Ed’s story as a defense for his wife without considering for a moment whether it’s true or not. And as we come to find out, it doesn’t actually matter anyway. The arbitrariness of justice is another theme culled from “The Stranger” (and perhaps most viscerally broached in Errol Morris’ excellent doc The Thin Blue Line).

In retrospect, Ed seems as if he longs for a postmortem existence from the very beginning. He feels like a ghost among his community and continually wonders at what point being passes into nonbeing, eerily evoked when he talks out loud at the barber shop about his aversion to throwing away cut hair because it’s a part of the human body, almost equating it with the soul. The Coens visually sync Ed’s eventual death to earlier moments, such as when a closeup of his leg being shaved in preparation for the electric chair that will end his life recalls an early scene where Ed shaves his wife’s leg in the bathtub. I’m sure if you look closely you’ll find many more clues like the ones above. There’s also a rather prominent circle motif that is open to a host of interpretations.

I was surprised at the parallels between this film and A Serious Man having seen the latter first. There’s a UFO subplot that would feel right at home in the Coens’ more recent effort. The references to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Einstein equally mesh. Even the title of this film implies a kind of nonlocality. But the most compelling similarity is the emphasis placed upon the interplay between fate and free will in both—cause and effect and the extent to which individuals play a role (often irrational) in determining the consequences of any course of action. Amusingly Reidenschneider cannot recall Heisenberg’s name when he says, “even Einstein says the guy’s onto something”. Not actually true. Einstein never accepted uncertainty as a physical principle, saying famously, “I don’t think God throws dice”. Determinism is an idea that Ed, like Einstein, struggles with, but he too acknowledges the tangled dance of will with chance: “I was dealt some bad cards, but maybe I didn’t play them well either”.

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