The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Directed by the Coen Brothers


The Man Who Wasn’t There is about Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), but aside from an early, ill-advised plan to blackmail the man sleeping with his wife, Ed doesn’t really do anything.  Ed’s most defining characteristic is his silence, even towards his wife, and yet the film ends with a declaration, as Ed says, “maybe I can tell her all those things they don’t have words for here.”

This is as he is about to be killed by the electric chair, and the “her” he refers to is his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), but this story feels so poetic, symbolic and metaphorical that he might simply be referring to the past.

Yes that’s vague, but the more I think about this story, the more I see it as the death of a certain type of life and a certain type of person who was unfit to survive the many awakenings of the 60s and 70s.  Ed Crane might as well be Don Draper.  He fits into the world at the beginning of the story, but he almost does so accidentally.

Ed might as well be an alien.  He seems to have no concern or feel no joy for and with the people around him.  Instead he just smokes his cigarette and stares at them, monologuing in voice over to an unknown audience within the context of the film.  The Man Who Wasn’t There starts with Ed staring at his fellow barber and brother-in-law, the man who gave him a job but who doesn’t shut the hell up.  The camera slowly pushes further and further into the scene until the jovial man’s lips take up almost the entire frame.  Ed watches him with some disdain but also with some kind of detached curiosity.  He doesn’t understand this man he must know so well more than he dislikes him.

When Ed reveals to us that his wife is having an affair with Big Dave (James Gandolfini), he isn’t surprised or hurt.  We don’t even see him discover this, it’s implied that he knows from the very beginning of the story.  Instead of reeling from this information, Ed sees it as an opportunity to steal $10,000 of Big Dave’s money in order to buy into a struggling salesman’s plan to make dry cleaning a reality.

None of this seems in line with Ed’s character even though we know so little about him.  The effort to blackmail Big Dave might have no malice behind it, even as Big Dave confides in him about the pain this anonymous threatening letter brings.  Ed just sits there, listening to what he has to say.

And even when and if Ed gets the money, it’s unclear why he’s so interested in the seedy salesman’s dry cleaning dream.  If anything, Ed might just be bored, or this might be a lame attempt at reaching out to the world to see if it reaches back.

One night, Big Dave calls Ed over to his shop and confronts him, saying that he knows it was Ed who left the note, even if Big Dave already pain him off.  When Dave attempts to kill Ed, our hero stabs him in the neck with a knife he apparently brought in self-defense.  This one scene, beyond propelling us into act two, tells us how little we know about our protagonist.  Just as we never saw him learn about his wife’s affair, we never see him reach for the knife before meeting Big Dave.  This sets up that there will be plenty of Ed’s character that remains unexplained.  Or hell, maybe we didn’t know about the knife because Ed didn’t know why he brought it in the first place.

Ed might be as much of a stranger to himself as he is to us and the people around him are to him.  The rest of this story deals with Ed learning about the unintended consequences of his actions, but he never experiences any highs or lows.  He just rolls with the punches for the most part.

Everyone in Ed’s life is someone he is “friends” with only because he has to be.  He’s friends with his wife, or at least non-combative, because they live together.  He tells us later, in a monologue sandwiched around the murder of Big Dave, that he barely knew Doris when they got married and only went through with it because he had no reason not to.  Ed is only friendly, when he’s friendly, with Big Dave because that’s who his wife brings around.  He only listens to his brother-in-law because they work together.

Ed has no real friends, but it doesn’t seem like he needs any.  When he approaches the salesman, he might be doing so because this is the first time in his life he’s tried to be a different person.  He wants to have friends and to engage with life, but he completely and utterly fails in this regard.

Doris is arrested for Big Dave’s murder, with multiple pieces of evidence tying her to the crime.  In one scene Ed offers to take the fall, at least to the lawyer’s perspective, but it feels like he’s confessing to the murder.  Doris takes it that way, yet she says nothing, and the lawyer waves away this confession, arguing that it will hold up to less scrutiny than the version of events believed to have happened.

When you think the momentum of the plot is increasing as we approach Doris’ trial, it is suddenly called off when the court learns that she hung herself the night before.  We learn this as Ed learns it, and the plot takes its foot off the gas.

Peppered throughout this story is a growing relationship between Ed and a young girl, Birdy (Scarlett Johansson).  This might feel completely outside of the story, and though it takes us into act three, this storyline has no connection whatsoever to Ed’s final demise.

Birdy is an innocent character if ever there was one.  She is shy, kind, pretty and plays the piano, which, apparently that attracts Ed’s attention.  He might love her in a romantic way, but Ed doesn’t seem capable of romance.  Instead he might just want friendship, the same thing he was searching for with the salesman.

Ed encourages Birdy to audition for some kind of music guru in nearby San Francisco, and when the guru insists that she is not that special of a musician, it only highlights how obsessed Ed is with this girl.  He wants her to be special, almost as if he needs a reason to hang out with her, which as a man in his mid 40s hanging out with a teenaged girl, that kind of makes sense.  Their friendship is peculiar but relatively harmless, though it always feels a little dangerous since we don’t completely know Ed’s motivations even if he is the protagonist.

The last time we see Birdy, she attempts to perform fellatio on Ed, thinking that’s what he wants, as he drives, and he crashes the car.  Ed has a brief dream about Doris, in a moment in which she yelled at a door to door salesman to leave them alone while Ed sat on the porch in complete silence.

When Ed awakens, he is instantly arrested for the murder of the dry cleaning salesman, apparently found dead, presumably killed by Big Dave who had discovered that this man was the one who might’ve blackmailed him.  That’s before he realized it was Ed.

Ed waits out his remaining days, in prison.  This is when we find out that his narration is for a men’s magazine which asked for his story and paid by the word count, explaining, as he says, why he may have run on a little too long with this story.

Even in prison Ed doesn’t seem to care about his situation.  Life, death, none of it matters.  The only thing which seems to strike him in any kind of impactful way is when he sees the UFO… so yeah, there’s a UFO.  This is a payoff of an earlier conversation between Ed and Big Dave’s widow, who warned him as such as things UFOs, and it turns out she’s right.  Or, of course, the UFOs aren’t real.  Ed sees them when he’s able to wander freely out of his cell, and when he gets to the prison courtyard, the UFO shines a spotlight, waiting for his arrival.

But we don’t know that Ed didn’t see a UFO.  To me he sees it, and by the end of the film his silence doesn’t feel as uncommunicative as it did to start the film.

“Maybe I can tell her all those things they don’t have words for here,” again, are the final words he speaks.  Ed now has a message for his wife, and he feels somehow enlightened as he prepares to die.

Ed, again, is so silent and unexpressive, that he feels more symbolic than real.  This whole story, which has relatively few plot points, could easily be a short story or a poem or a song.  It’s shot in black and white, emphasizing an old fashioned time period, and the whole thing circles the drain, showing characters who die or break down mentally or who simply disappear from the story.

The title of this film, seems to imply that something is missing in Ed.  He might be a bit of a sociopath or an alien, but the point is that when he dies, no one will miss him.  Ed is a ghost who hasn’t died yet.  He lurks in the shadows, smokes his cigarette like it’s his life blood, making it feel like if he were to burst, he might just disappear into a cloud of smoke, leaving behind no sign of blood or life.

And what would this say about the world of the movie?  It’s a very old fashioned world, made clear by the fact that dry cleaning is spoken of with terms usually reserved for distant space travel.  The future is shiny and new and exciting but also very unknown.  Sure Ed is ready for that future because the present is nothing to write home about.  So he buys into the salesman’s like lies, and it gets them all in trouble.

Or maybe they were all in trouble from the start.  Perhaps Ed was always going to die, though the story makes it seem like his death can be traced back to the moment he decided he liked what the salesman was selling.  And if Ed represents something like the 1950s, a generation sandwiched between a deadly world war and the chaotic, spiritual, newness of the 60s, maybe his death represents… what, time?

Generations and eras are constantly dying and being born, and in some cases reborn.  But there’s something fascinating about the 50s.  Granted I’m not the biggest history buff, but from what I know, the 50s were a generation in large part built out of desperation, to some degree.  When I think of this period of time, I think of escapism and the baby boomers and the economic boom following the end of World War II.  There was a lot of promise at this time, simply because people were alive, and there weren’t dictators making things awful, at least not in Germany I suppose.

So there was a lot of hope, but then the 60s happened, and there were more drugs, yes more love but also more characters like Lee Harvey Oswald and the men who assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.  There were riots and Vietnam and Charles Manson.  It had to be confusing and a bit of a whirlwind to say the least.

So when I think about this movie and about Ed Crane, I think about all of this as well.  Ed feels like he knew it was coming even if there’s no way in hell he could possibly know.  Ed doesn’t much buy into the satisfaction afforded the characters around him who live nearly identical lives.  His silence can be taken for distrust, whether that’s of the government, of his wife or of life in general.  It’s like he knows it’s all going to collapse in some way or another, but everyone else thinks it’s going to go on forever.

And that’s a bit of a pessimistic view, after all the world didn’t end in the 1960s, but in many ways the world has never been the same since that decade.  The world of The Man Who Wasn’t There feels almost magical in its familiar, cinematic depiction of a small, wholesome town unpolluted by cell phones, internet, violence and the realization that there’s a lot more racism around than you realize.  Everything felt like it must have been a little quieter back then, even if that’s just because we didn’t have immediate access to and knowledge of the events going on worldwide.  I guess it could’ve been a little bubble in that way, a bubble that was about to burst.

Dave and Ed have a brief discussion of the war and returning from that war.  Big Dave served and has a loud story he probably tells too often about his wartime experience, but Ed never served.  Either way, the war lingers in their memory, but not in a way that handcuffs them now.  In this version of the world there is no PTSD because, from the perspective of American civilians, there was no knowledge of bow had that war was and how much it affected those who survived.  That is unlike Vietnam in which news coverage allowed us to know more than ever before.

In some ways the 50s feel like the pinnacle of the American experience, granted that’s only if you ignore the racism bubbling under the surface and the people who, back then, could never (and I guess still can’t) afforded that kind of life.  But when people talk about the American dream, even if it has changed over time, they often refer to the white picket fence, the family, the dog, etc.

I think a lot of people dream about this period of time, when everyone was nice (in movies), everyone could afford a home, working a job as a barber was all you needed, and people still had pie eating contests.  This version of life is almost dreamlike, but The Man Who Wasn’t There almost feels like a David Lynchian lens through which to view this world, like the one he presented in Blue Velvet.

The Coen Brothers show the dark side, I suppose, in this film, but it doesn’t feel like an indictment of this period of time and instead more of an indictment of those who glorify this period of time.  Maybe they’re telling us to wake the hell up, and maybe Ed really does see the UFO.  Or maybe he doesn’t and he’s the crazy one, but again since we see the world through his eyes (as much as we’re allowed to), we have to consider his point of view and what that means to the story and beyond the story.

So I’m left with a feeling of hope, following Ed’s final line, in which he implies a belief in the after life which I never could have imagined him buying into at the start of the film.  Ed grows, and he seems ready to live, of course that’s right before he dies.

I’m also left with the feeling that there is something wrong with the world of the story.  The lawyers are greedy, Big Dave is slimy, the salesman is even more slimy, and Doris, while certainly admirable in some ways as the end draws near, is image-obsessed and a criminal.  She cooks the books for Big Dave, but when she’s in prison she feels like a completely different person.  She never complains about her predicament, even in her innocence, and if anything she hardens more than Ed does.  I almost expected Ed to fall in love with her for the first time now that she sat silently in prison, composed like a military soldier.  In one scene, the first we see of her in prison, she shouts at a fellow inmate to stop crying.  Doris is a badass.

The saddest scene of the film is the one in which Doris realizes Ed was the one who murdered Big Dave, if it hadn’t occurred to her already.  She doesn’t say anything, but she gives him a look of sorrow and realization.  Maybe she is thinking about what she did to make him do such a thing, or maybe she feels some affection for the fact that he would do something as drastic as killing Big Dave, from her perspective presumably because he was angry, suggesting he loved her.

Whatever the look suggests, it’s not one of anger.

So what the hell is this movie about?  I’m going with the death of the American Dream and the 1950s, but the birth of something resembling curiosity about the unknown world.  The Coen Brothers seem to be saying that yes the world and the future is scary, but it’s not all bad.  There is some good in the unknown.  Or maybe I completely misread everything.


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