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

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. 

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