30 Years of Coens: The Man Who Wasn't There

An intriguing noir goes astray.

USA Films

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the Coen brothers' debut, Blood Simple, I’m re-watching their 16 feature films and attempting to jot down observations on one per day, in order of their release. For a fuller explanation of what I’m doing and why, see my first entry, on Blood Simple. (Here, too, are my entries on Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?. The landing page for the whole series is here.)

Notes on The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001)

• Steve Guttenberg as a State Department aide who drinks an invisibility potion and gets chased around by Russian agents—including Jeffrey Tambor as “Boris Potemkin”—while engaging in food fights and sneaking into girls’ locker rooms? And it’s in 3-D, circa 1983? This one is going straight to the top of my list. Wait, scratch that: wrong The Man Who Wasn’t There. Alas.

• The Coens film of the same name may be the only movie I know of that had its genesis in a piece of set dressing for a prior film. The barbershop scene in The Hudsucker Proxy featured a poster with different haircut styles from the 1940s. After shooting was completed, the Coens kept the prop, which eventually inspired them to write a script that they long referred to as The Barber Project.

• The Coens had mined hardboiled writer James M. Cain for material on their first film, Blood Simple, but this time out they turned the Cain dial up to 11. The Man Who Wasn’t There liberally borrows themes and plot devices from Mildred Pierce (the wife’s embezzlement, the girl’s musical career) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (the car crash, the pregnancy, the protagonist who gets away with the murder he committed and is convicted of one he didn’t). But it’s Double Indemnity that gets name-checked most explicitly: The surname of the cheating wife and her unlucky husband in Cain’s novel was Nirdlinger, the name of the department store in the Coens’ film; in Billy Wilder’s 1944 screen adaptation of the book, that surname was changed to Dietrichson, supplying the name of the medical examiner in The Man Who Wasn’t There. And if Cain is not enough, it’s no coincidence that the Coens’ movie was set (and partially filmed) in Santa Rosa, California, which was also the setting for Hitchcock’s study of small-town malevolence Shadow of A Doubt.

The Man Who Wasn’t There was the Coens’ first (and to date only) foray into black and white, and it’s a stunner, among the very best-looking of all their films. Their usual cinematographer, Roger Deakins, shot the film in color—they were contractually obligated to have a color version for overseas use—and then printed it on black and white stock, and the result is a deep, rich interplay between light and dark. Though the movie is the most explicitly “noir” of all the Coens’ pictures, its look more closely resembles that of science fiction movies of the 1950s—a fact that makes its peculiar UFO subplot a touch less incongruous.

• The Coens knew Billy Bob Thornton socially, and when they offered him the lead part of the blackmailing barber Ed Crane, he quickly accepted. Like Clooney before him, he was a fan of the brothers’ work: As he explained, in the most Billy-Bobbish manner conceivable, “The thing is, they just don’t suck.” Thornton’s role as Ed is more central than that of any previous Coens protagonist: We see the story not merely through his eyes, but to some degree from inside his head. Though he speaks little onscreen (as he informs us in the movie’s opening moments, “I don’t talk much”), his voiceover narration is near-continual and perfectly modulated: Even though, befitting his character, it is borderline affectless, it never slips into monotone. I’ve seen Joel Coen talk down Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 noir masterpiece Out of the Past, but the balance between Crane’s first-person narration and onscreen reticence strongly recalls Robert Mitchum’s Jeff Bailey, of whom Kirk Douglas’s character remarks in that film, “You just sit and stay inside yourself. You wait for me to talk. I like that.” And can it possibly be a coincidence that, over the course of the two movies, Crane and Bailey are each offered a cigarette only to have to point out that they’re already smoking one?

• Physically, too, Thornton maintains an exquisite, mesmerizing stillness throughout the course of the film. Half of what he does onscreen (perhaps more than half) is inhale and exhale unfiltered Chesterfields, and he does so, whatever your thoughts on tobacco, with a conviction that verges on mute opera. (Thornton, a smoker at the time, has said that making the movie was what finally persuaded him to quit.) It’s a truly exceptional performance—among the best in any Coens picture—and along with Deakins’s cinematography, one of the film’s two greatest strengths.

• Rounding out the cast are James Gandolfini as “Big Dave” Brewster (the Coens’ third “Big” in a row, following David Huddleston’s Lebowski and John Goodman’s “Big Dan”), along with a variety of Coens ensemble returnees. Frances McDormand delivers a carefully balanced, ambiguous performance as Crane’s wayward wife, Doris. Michael Badalucco forms another, Fargo-esque mismatched pairing of talker and non-talker with Thornton, as his brother-in-law and co-barber. And Jon Polito brings abundant echoes of Miller’s Crossing to the role of dry-cleaning entrepreneur Creighton Tolliver. When he says the word “rug,” you can almost hear “Daniels” floating behind it, just out of earshot. (Note also that the hotel where he stays is the “Nobart Arms,” an anagram for the “Barton Arms” where Tom Reagan made his home.)

• Which brings me to Tony Shalhoub. Why in the world don’t he and the Coens work together more often? He was terrific as studio hack Ben Geisler in Barton Fink, and he is better still as fast-talking defense attorney Freddy Riedenschneider, one of my favorite supporting characters in the entire Coen canon. I am particularly enamored of the scene in which he discusses using Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as the basis for a criminal defense. The first half it is here. Then, after a brief discursion, Riedenschneider concludes, “We can’t know what really happened.… Because the more you look, the less you know. But the beauty of it is, we don't gotta know! We just gotta show that, goddamnit, they don't know. Reasonable doubt. Science. The atom.” I read this as a brilliant sendup of the 1998 Tony-winning Michael Frayn play Copenhagen, of which I was not a fan. But maybe that’s just me. (The uncertainty principle will come into play again in the Coens’ A Serious Man.)

• There are, in short, many very good elements to The Man Who Wasn’t There. But after a promising first half, the movie gradually veers off course. The entire storyline involving Crane and Birdy Abundas (Scarlett Johansson), the pretty teenage piano player in whom he takes an inappropriate interest, feels as though it’s part of a different, and notably more contemporary, film, especially in the final sequence in which she explicitly offers him oral sex. Indeed, as the movie progresses, it consistently becomes grimmer and bleaker—Doris’s suicide, Ed’s execution—without ever seeming quite to earn it. Material this dark either needs to establish enough moral consequence to play it straight, or it needs to dive deep into black comedy (as the Coens’ later Burn After Reading would do). Fargo somewhat miraculously managed to do both to some degree, but The Man Who Wasn’t There does neither—and in fact scarcely seems to attempt to do either. Its escalating tragedies are neither genuinely moving nor defused with comedy, leading to a decidedly numb and unsatisfying film experience. There is a lot to admire here, but the movie is ultimately far less than the sum of its pieces.

Et Cetera:

Where I rank The Man Who Wasn’t There among Coens films: #14 (out of 16)

Best line: “It was only a couple of weeks later she suggested we get married. I said, ‘Don’t you want to get to know me more?’ She said, ‘Why? Does it get better?’”

Best visual: Ed Crane smoking

Best sound: The scrape of the razor as Ed shaves Doris’s legs

Notable locale: Santa Rosa, California

Notable Influences: James M. Cain

Things that roll: Hubcaps, flying saucers

Dream sequence(s): Yes

Important scene(s) set in a bathroom: Yes

Deranged hair: Yes (Creighton Tolliver)

Number of characters who vomit: Zero

Next up: Intolerable Cruelty