The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

Since I’ve never seen a Coen brothers film I didn’t like, I thought I work my way through their filmography as I’ve never watched some of their very early works. This film has familiar faces from the brothers’ regular cast and even features a very young Scarlett Johansson from before she became truly famous due to Lost in Translation.

Ed Crane is an ordinary barber who works in his brother-in-law’s shop. Passive and emotionally distant from others, Ed gets along with others simply by not speaking much at all. His wife, Doris, works as an accountant for a department store and he comes to believe that she is having an affair with her boss Big Dave. One day a customer comes in and talks about needing outside investors to open a dry cleaning business. Ed hatches a plan to blackmail Big Dave about the affair for the money. Big Dave does pay up and Ed delivers the money to the businessman. But he also finds out that Ed was the blackmailer and confronts him in his store. While being strangled, Ed instinctively stabs Big Dave with a knife and kills him. The next day the police come to see him and he expects to be arrested. However it is Doris that they accuse of being the murderer instead and Ed has to find a lawyer to defend her. While all this is going on, Ed hears the music being played on a piano by the young daughter of a neighbor and it seems to become the only thing that can move him.

Some critics like to say that great director simply make the same film over and over again. This generally isn’t true for the oeuvre of the Coen brothers as it includes such outliers as Raising Arizona, No Country for Old Men and Inside Llewyin Davis. Still this film does share DNA with Fargo to a remarkable degree and considering the existence of the spin-off television series, there’s a distinct feeling that this is more of the same. It’s great, vintage Coen and it’s as deliciously entertaining as always but between the familiar cast members, the usual setups that combine awkwardness and coincidences and even the use of inexplicable UFO sightings as an absurdist device, I can’t say that I was particularly enthused about this film.

My wife did like this film and it’s true that there’s a philosophical bent to its themes. Ed is a man who isn’t there in the sense that his passivity and unmemorableness causes him to sort of fade into the background such that the people around even discount that he even has opinions and feelings of his own. My favorite part is that he is aware of how strange it is that he is unable to muster much passion for anything except when he happens to hear Birdy playing the piano. Convinced that she is a genius he seeks a world-class teacher for her only to be told that she is only an ordinary pianist with no talent. There are also shades of Albert Camus’ The Stranger in this film, especially when Ed is himself put on trial for the wrong crime though it would have been closer if they had people castigating him for his very lack of emotional affect.

Overall I found this to be a solid Coen film and one that shows off their various fetishes and interests particularly well. It isn’t one of my favorites however but at least it doesn’t put me off watching more of their stuff.

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