The Coen Project Part 9: The Man Who Wasn’t There

While critics went nuts for the beautiful black-and-white cinematography and Thornton’s performance, The Man is easily my least favorite entry in the Coen filmography.

After the financial success of Fargo and O Brother Where Art Thou, Joel and Ethan were pretty much free to make any movie they wanted. Turns out they wanted to make a slow and confusing retro noir about alienation and haircuts, resulting in The Man Who Wasn’t There. The idea for the film came from the barbershop scene in 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy, which includes a prop chart detailing mid-century men’s hairstyles. The Coens held on to the the prop after filming, eventually making it the jumping-off point for their black-and-white noir experiment.

It’s hard to call The Man Who Wasn’t There neo-noir, since there’s nothing neo about it — it’s a near direct replication of the dark murder-centric films of the forties. A stone-faced Billy Bob Thorton plays Ed Crane, a second-chair barber who spends most of his time staring into space and smoking despite being married to the energetic Doris (Frances McDormand). Ed’s inner thoughts are revealed via narration, a staple noir technique that ‘s also necessary because the character is essentially nonverbal.

The plot is a mash-up of every forties noir element imaginable — a cheating spouse, blackmail, a money-making scheme gone wrong, inappropriate infatuation, and a handful of murders. In a parallel to The Hudsucker Proxy’s hula hoop, the narrative hinges on the fictionalized invention of a well-known product, in this case dry cleaning — Ed’s attempt to invest in the new laundry technology kicks off an ultimately fatal sequence of events. At a certain point this feels close to parody, especially when Ed intones: “Dry cleaning. Was I crazy to be thinking about it?” 

Unlike the tense mid-forties thrillers it draws influence from, The Man is set in 1949 and is permeated with post-war boredom and purposelessness. Ed is so crushed by alienation that he can’t even get through a haircut without having a minor existential meltdown: “It keeps growing, and it’s part of us, and we throw it away.”  The film seems less interested in the murders than in Ed’s complete inability to relate to other human beings and their daily activities.

This is kind of where the aliens come in. The wife of the murdered Big Dave tells Ed that she and her husband saw a UFO, which she believes was the source of the subsequent chaos leading to Dave’s death. Ed does not react (he doesn’t react to anything). Later, Ed sees a UFO himself in a scene that might or might not be a dream. The film ends up playing like the world’s longest and most boring episode of the Twilight Zone (and I love the Twilight Zone).

I wish that The Man leaned into its sci-fi twist a lot harder — it would have been fun to see what the Coens could do with the 50’s alien movie subgenre. Instead the UFO is just an obvious metaphor for their protaganist’s alienation that only serves to confuse and slow down the murder narrative. It isn’t easy to sit through. While critics went nuts for the beautiful black-and-white cinematography and Thornton’s performance, The Man is easily my least favorite entry in the Coen filmography.

When given the chance, the Coens are going to make the movie they want to make, without much regard to whether the end result is coherent to anyone else. They aren’t driven by a pursuit of some ultimate cinematic sublimation — they just have fun doing their jobs that they happen to be incredibly good at. Their movies are born of the creative joy of exploring an idea or image and following it wherever it leads, typically down weird corners of the human experience. It doesn’t always work, but it’s always interesting, at least to someone. 

This interview (looks like it’s at Cannes) ends with what is probably my favorite quote from a filmmaker about their work ever: after discussing the significance of Ed Crane being a barber, Ethan says:  “All this stuff is actually in retrospect, but you know, it sounds plausible, and the French like it.” This is what I love about these guys — their utter lack of ego despite the pretention projected onto their work by other people. 

Stray Observations:

  • Some high points: Richard Jenkins’ character’s drunken NorCal attorney recommendations, and Tony Schaloub as a fast-talking and fast-eating defense attorney.
  • Frances McDormand is typically great, but it’s less fun because she’s basically acting against a brick wall (Thornton).
  • The French did like it — Joel shared the best director award at Cannes with David Lynch for Mulholland Drive. 

Christine VS 80’s Round 4: Horror Edition

I didn’t grow up watching horror movies, and until recently never thought I was missing out on anything. Horror is the only genre that seems acceptable to completely opt out of — people don’t say they never watch action films, or never watch period dramas, but I have plenty of friends who categorically refuse to go to scary movies. Horror is different because it aims to induce a visceral reaction in the viewer in addition to presenting a narrative. Because of this, many commercial horror films seem content to be effectively horrifying but narratively lazy, like a poorly designed roller coaster that’s still going to go fast and jerk you around. This tendency has always made it difficult for me to parse through what’s good in bad in the genre.

Although I would love to roast some of the more absurd specimens of 80’s horror, I think I should first look at some good examples to give myself a baseline. To cover two of horror’s major subcategories, slasher and supernatural, I’m going to start with Nightmare on Elm Street and Poltergeist.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

By 1982, college English professor turned writer/director Wes Craven already had a handful of horror film under his belt, most notably The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, and less notably Deadly Blessing and Swamp Thing. While taking a break from directing, he met Bob Shaye, founder of the now uber-succesful but then struggling New Line Cinemas. Shaye scraped together enough funding for a low-budget production while Craven penned the script for Nightmare on Elm Street.

Nightmare’s premise was groundbreaking for a slasher because it blurred the lines between reality and imagination. Four teenagers all have similar nightmares involving a grinning burn victim in a red and green sweater with knives for fingers, later revealed to be dead-ish child murderer Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). When one of them is actually killed by Freddy from within their dream, survivors Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and Glen (a very young Johnny Depp) attempt to figure out how to get rid of their attacker (mostly Nancy does this), while avoiding death by staying awake (Glen is less successful at this).

If all horror movies in some way mirror real-life traumas, Nightmare is focused on losing reliance on one’s parents in late adolescence. Nancy’s mom is a drunk and her dad is distracted and condescending, overprotective but simultaneously unable to protect her from the real danger of Freddy. While she’s still very emotionally attached to her parents, she has to let go of her trust in them to face the danger herself.

The vanquishing of Freddy by means of Nancy’s smarts and bravery is undercut by a goofy tacked-on dream sequence in which the kids are trapped in a Freddy-colored car (apparently an imposition from Shaye, who had some misguided directorial ambitions).


The car is Freddy I guess? 

Nightmare is an old-school monster movie as much as it’s a slasher — Freddy Kreuger’s simple and instantly recognizable design calls back to iconic creature feature villains of the thirties and forties. Of course you can’t just make one monster movie: Nightmare spawned eight sequels and remakes starring Freddy. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) was the only one written and directed by Craven himself — a meta-narrative in which the fictional Freddy invades the real world. The 2010 reboot Nightmare on Elm Street apparently put the nail in the franchise’s coffin, attempting to make Freddy dark and gritty by exploring the peodophilic implications of the character’s backstory. Fun!

Watchability: 3/5. The lack of budget shows, and Nancy is the only fully fleshed-out character.

Scariness: 3/5 for me. Freddy’s persona is so pre-engrained that I wasn’t terribly surprised by anything he did.

Stranger Things Callbacks: A tough high schooler named Nancy, hands stretching through walls, booby-trapping a house before summoning an inter-dimensional monster, parents who just don’t get it.

Poltergeist (1982)

I’ve always thought of Poltergeist as that Speilberg movie I’ve never seen, but it was officially directed by Tobe Hooper, a horror guy known for Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Accounts of the film’s directorial authorship vary, with many cast members claiming that Spielberg was calling most of the shots on set. I’ve never seen anything else by Hooper, but visually, Poltergeist feels like Speilberg’s work.

True to Speilbergian form, Poltergeist focuses on suburban family, featuring Craig T. Robinson and JoBeth Williams as mom (Diane) and dad (Steve) to two little kids and a teenager. They’ve just moved into a new planned community where Steve is a real estate developer. Because the title of the film is Poltergeist, we can reasonably guess that their new house contains a poltergeist. It does.

Compared to Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist is a more fully-formed movie underneath its horror premise — Speilberg’s aim was clearly to elevate the genre with believable character work. To this end, the film has a lengthy build up, focusing heavily on defining the family relationships before anything strange happens — including a scene where the parents casually smoke weed in their bedroom, feet away from their sleeping children.

The initial ghost activity, which includes rearranging chairs and sliding stuff across the floor, is kind of benign and charming, but things get real when the little girl is sucked into the television. From there Steve and Diane have to figure out how to communicate with their daughter and extract her from the limbo-like state she’s trapped in.


The creepiest thing about this movie is Tagina, a tiny clairvoyant lady hired to help retrieve the child and expel the ghosts from the house. While the dialog in Poltergeist is generally great, she gives us this hilariously dubious exchange at the edge of the ghost-portal:

Tagina: I’m going in after her!

Diane: She won’t come to you! Let me go!

Tagina: You’ve never done this before!

Diane: Neither have you!

Tagina: ….You’re right, you go.

I expected to see only standard ghost stuff, but Poltergeist treats us to a full gamut of awesome practical horror effects, including a kid being consumed by a possessed tree, a guy ripping his face apart, and an entire house imploding. The ending is definitive, avoiding the horror trope of obviously telegraphing a sequel in the final seconds (not that they didn’t make a sequel).

Watchability: 4/5, easily the best supernatural horror film I’ve seen (granted I have not seen many).

Scariness: 3.5/5. Lots of unexpected scares.

Stranger Things Callbacks: Mom trying to communicate with child trapped in other dimension, using a rope as a tether while entering said other dimension, coming back from said other dimension covered in stringy goo.