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. 

Picks for Kevin


I was discussing HBO’s Westworld with my college buddy, Kevin, when he mentioned that he had never seen Blade Runner. In general, he felt that he was lacking in the classic sci-fi filmic knowledge appropriate to a card-carrying nerd. To remedy this situation and to help him to expand his overall cinematic palate, I offered to come up with a list of movies for him to watch.

Here you go, K-Money. My hope is that each movie listed here can be a jumping-off point into a different genre or era of film that I think you’ll enjoy. I’ll take it for granted that Blade Runner is already on your to-watch list, and I KNOW you have Blu-Rays of Alien and Aliens, because I saw you stand in line to get them at Comic-Con a year and a half ago. You should watch them.

Total Recall (1990)
Since 2015 brought us an ultra-realistic look at life on Mars in Ridley Scott’s adaptation The Martian, I thought you might like to check out an earlier sci-fi depiction of the Red Planet. Even though it was released in 1990, Total Recall is quintessential 80’s action. Directed by Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct), it’s full of ridiculous body horror and brutal fight scenes along with dumb, awesome one-liners by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in one of his best non-Terminator roles.

Set in 2048, Arnold plays construction worker Douglas Quaid, who’s plagued by nightmares about a mysterious woman on Mars. To remedy this situation (I guess), he decides to try Rekall, a service that will implant the memories of a trip to Mars in his consciousness. Of course craziness ensues, with Quaid finding out that his entire life might not be what he thought it was.

It isn’t just mindless fun, though. Total Recall is an early predecessor to movies like The Matrix and Inception, that deal with questions of the nature of reality. Like Inception, the movie itself is a puzzle that may take a handful of viewings to really crack, if there’s really an answer at all.

WarGames (1983)
As a software engineer, you need to see this film because it’s widely, and I think correctly, regarded as the greatest hacker movie of all time. Additionally, it’ll give you some much-needed context for the book Ready Player One and its forthcoming film adaptation, which is going to be directed by Steven Spielberg. Ready Player One is drenched in 80’s nostalgia, and WarGames is one of its major touchstones.

A pre-Ferris Bueller Matthew Broderick plays a young Seattle computer hobbyist who accidentally hacks into the military’s nuclear control system. He thinks that he’s accessed a nuclear-war themed computer game, but soon discovers that his tinkering has triggered real-world panic.

As much a Cold War movie as it is a hacker movie, WarGames tapped into the long-standing nuclear panic of the 80’s combined with the very new concepts of computers and hacking. At the time of its release, most people didn’t even have computers in their homes, let alone access to the internet. The idea that any person with a computer could influence events on a global scale must have been utterly mind-bending. WarGames even ended up helping to shape our national policy: the film evidently made such a huge impression on President Reagan that it prompted him to launch extensive investigations into the threat of cyber warfare.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
I know you’ve seen this at some point, but it’s worth revisiting. Although only a handful of Steven Spielberg’s films can be considered science fiction, he’s influenced the genre as much as any other director I can think of. His cinematic fingerprints are all over contemporary film and TV. If you re-watch Stranger Things, you’ll notice that multiple shots are directly lifted from his films.

Close Encounters features 70’s everyman Richard Dreyfuss as a father and husband whose relationships are threatened by his growing obsessions after an encounter with a UFO. While most films in the alien invasion subgenre rely on the aliens being a hostile threat to create tension and drive the plot forward, Close Encounters instead builds suspense as the protagonist gradually pieces together what’s happening to him. As a result, the pacing is slower than typical modern sci-fi, but it’s worth the patience that it requires.

If you haven’t seen the recent Arrival yet, I’d recommend watching this first if you have a chance. In many ways, Arrival is a spiritual descendent of Close Encounters, and in my opinion the first film in the genre to really approach the powerful sense of wonder that Spielberg brought to his film.

Chinatown (1974)
Director Roman Polanski and writer Robert Towne’s 1974 neo-noir is essential for anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of cinematic storytelling. Set in late 1930’s Los Angeles, Chinatown features Jack Nicholson in one of his most well-known roles as Jake Gittes, a tough private detective who’s hired to surveil the city’s chief water engineer by a woman claiming to be his wife. The gig turns out to be a set-up, launching Gittes into a web of deception and intrigue.

Every screenwriting book I’ve ever read uses Chinatown as an example of rock-solid story structure, pacing, and dialog. It can also serve as an entry point to New Hollywood, a renaissance era of filmmaking that stretched from the late sixties to the early eighties. Kicked off by Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde and Mike Nichols’ The Graduate in 1967, the movement was heavily inspired by French New Wave Directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, and focused on the importance of the director as the film’s primary creative force, as opposed to the film studio.

Some Like it Hot (1959)
Let’s bring it back even further with a comedy that I think you’ll enjoy. Some Like it Hot was written and directed by Billy Wilder, one of the most prolific and versatile filmmakers of the twentieth century. It follows a pair of jazz musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who witness the 1929 St. Valentine’s day Massacre and escape by pretending to be women and joining an all-female band. This results in some surprisingly nuanced gender commentary that pushed cultural boundaries at the time of its release in the late fifties. It’s also a masterpiece of screwball comedy, ranked the Funniest Movie of All time by the American Film Institute. Some of its classic one-liners have become so embedded in the zeitgeist that you’ve probably heard them already, even if you’ve never seen it.

Rope (1948)
I thought that this would be an interesting entry point into the world of Alfred Hitchcock, which you’ve yet to delve into. Rope is unique within Hitchcock’s oeuvre of suspense movies in that it takes place in real time over the course of one evening in an apartment, and was edited to appear to be one long, continuous shot. This gives it a stagey quality that I think you’ll appreciate as a theater guy. It’s actually extremely reminiscent of The Hateful 8 (minus all the gore), to the point that I would bet money that Tarantino was strongly inspired by it.

If you want to explore more Hitchcock, I’d follow this up with Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, and Vertigo.

Double Indemnity (1944)
Classic 40’s film noir is both a genre unto itself and a hugely influential cinematic style, so I thought I would recommend the noir-iest of all noirs, as determined by this super scientific infographic .

Double Indemnity also happens to be one of my favorite movies ever, a film that I find myself going back to over and over. Directed by the same guy who did Some Like it Hot (he had some serious range), it follows an insurance salesman who gets talked into plotting his own wife’s murder.

The noir style had a massive influence on comics as well as film. Batman (especially Frank Miller’s interpretation), Watchmen, Daredevil, Hellboy,  and many others can trace their stylistic DNA back to the dark, crime-focused movies of this era.