The Man Who Wasn’t There – Joel & Ethan Coen – 2001

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I think The Man Who Wasn’t There is riotously funny. I watched this film at the Dobie Theater when it came out with a few friends and nobody in the theater was laughing but me. Was I being cruel? Was this film not absurd? With each turn of the knife I found myself chuckling at the fate of the barber. Was it not his wife who was cheating on him?

Billy Bob Thornton gives what might be an all time great performance. He is so dry and removed it kills me. At one point he says he’s going to take the hair from the floor and mingle it with common house dirt. Brilliant.

Ed married into his profession and lives a carbon copy life on a suburban street, content to have a driveway, a roof and a hot wife who asks him to shave her legs. The barber is a man who lets life happen to him, he never takes matters into his own hands until he meets the dry cleaning man. Seems like a good deal to him. So why not blackmail the doofus banging your wife?

Gandolfini as the doofus is great. He’s an all talk goofball later outed as a clerk during the war. He’s not in the picture much but he’s good. His wife, Anne Nerdlinger, she has one of the best scenes. She confronts Ed at his home and reveals the intimate details of how Big Dave had been abducted by aliens. Ed’s non-reaction is priceless.

Similarly, a county morgue official tells Ed Doris was pregnant when she died and Ed tells the man he and his wife had not performed the sex act in many years. He truly isn’t rattled. And I find that the Coens choose to flaunt this grotesquerie in the face of the viewer funny.

The film is dark and tragic, serious and sober. All the while it continues to provide a sleek cautionary tale about not being in control of your life. Ed has all he has because of his wife and he lives and dies by his attachment to her. If he had found a woman who liked him for more than the fact that he didn’t talk much, then maybe he’d not have been a cuckold.

When Ed does try to make a difference, he takes a short path, blackmail Big Dave and give the pansy Dry Cleaning cash. He’d make money as a silent partner, no work involved. Nothing ventured, nothing gained Mr. Crane.

Frances McDormand is typically excellent. Doris is a fairly awful woman who treats Ed as little more than a grooming cigarette lighter. She is an alcoholic and a cheater. Ultimately she hangs herself a resignation to both her own infidelity and the death of the dream.

This film is a true tragedy in that whenever the characters reach out and try to achieve for themselves they are only met with failure. The Pansy never starts his business. Big Dave is stabbed in the neck. Doris fails at her affair. Riedenschnieder never gets to win the unwinnable case. Birdy fails not only at her piano audition but also in road fellatio. And poor Ed, stares up out an open prison door into the night sky to see the UFO hovering above. Ed gives the spinning craft a knowing nod. The universe is much larger than one little Barber and his little problems. Crane sighs and turns inward to face his demise.

Ed’s failure to act is the failure of the 1950’s, a decade of resting on laurels and sitting back, trying to make the easy money. But deceit and troubles live as easily in the squarest of ages, in the depths of suburbia as they do a world away at war. Man always finds some way to let his own ambivalence destroy him, but that wasn’t really what killed Ed Crane. It wasn’t his Zen-like commitment to nothing in particular. No, it was greed and spite. He did not have to blackmail big Dave, he just wanted money and a wrong righted. And in trying to take justice into his own hands, he sealed his own demise.

Like I said at the beginning, this film is hilarious!

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