The Man Who Wasn’t There by the Brothers Coen suffers from the familiar Coen malady of being technically brilliant but with nothing much to say. The brothers’ best movies — such as Miller’s Crossing and Fargo — have been those in which they have had very familiar things to say, but said them with their trade-mark style and originality. Miller’s Crossing daringly took the context of a pastiche of Hollywood gangster film to tell us that killing people was hard, and ought to be hard. Fargo, even more simply, told us that crime does not pay, especially when you consider what is to be had in this world without crime. But such simple statements do not often satisfy sophisticates like Joel and Ethan Coen, so they are driven instead to put their immense talents in the service of some merely wry and ironic look at pop-cultural manifestations (The Hudsucker Proxy, The Big Lebowski) or, more portentously, some arty meditation on the meaninglessness of existence (Blood Simple).
The Man Who Wasn’t There is a movie of this latter type. It is even made in black and white as if to underscore — and make fun of — its own artistic pretensions. Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, a barber in Santa Rosa, California, in 1951. He works as “second chair” in a shop owned by his brother-in-law, Frank (Michael Badalucco) who inherited the place “free and clear” from his father, Gussie. Ed is married to Frank’s sister Doris (Frances McDormand), who works as an accountant at the local department store, Nirdlingers. Ed suspects that Doris is having an affair with her boss, an expansive talker and alleged war hero called Big Dave (James Gandolfini), who manages Nirdlingers by virtue of his marriage to the daughter of the owner. His aim is to open a discount shop, called Dave’s Annex, with his own money.
One day a customer called Creighton Tolliver (Jon Pollito) comes into the barber shop. He has come to Santa Rosa to seek a “silent partner” in a dry-cleaning establishment that he proposes to open and run. Dry cleaning, he says, is the wave of the future. But his prospective investor has let him down, and so his journey has been for nothing. He gets pleasure out of fooling the barber with his wig, which he says cost him a lot of money. Ed seems to listen with his usual passivity to the story of the wonders of dry cleaning and the stranger’s need for $10,000, but a seed has been planted. He later goes to visit Tolliver in his hotel room and says he can get the $10,000 if Tolliver will make him the silent partner. Tolliver easily agrees. He also tries to pick up Ed, but Ed tells him he’s “way out of line, Mister.” Ed then writes to Big Dave anonymously, threatening to expose his affair with Doris, unless he comes up with $10,000.
Rather oddly, it is Ed himself in whom Big Dave chooses to confide, offering him a cigar which he cuts with a souvenir Jap knife and explaining that he is being blackmailed on account of an affair — with “no one you know” — and that he would face ruin if it came out, since his wife’s family would no longer employ him as manager of their department store. Moreover, he has (with Doris’s help) cooked the books to come up with the $10,000 he will need for Dave’s Annex, and now is being asked to give that same sum to the blackmailer. He tells Ed that he even knows who the blackmailer is. It is Tolliver, who (it transpires) had come Santa Rosa to ask him for the dry-cleaning partnership. Ed advises him to pay the money. Which he does. But Big Dave finds out that it is really Ed who is blackmailing him when he beats up “the pansy,” — Creighton Tolliver — and confronts Ed with the information late one night in his office. When he assaults him, Ed grabs at the Japanese knife and stabs Big Dave in the neck. The next day, however, it is Doris who is arrested for the murder because the irregularity in the books is detected and she is assumed to have had the motive. And no alibi.
This is the weak point in an otherwise carefully constructed plot. It is hard to believe that Doris would be charged on so little evidence, let alone put on trial for her life. But it is worth granting the film so much just for the delight of the expensive defense lawyer, Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) that guilt-stricken Ed is persuaded to hire. It is worth the price of admission just to hear Ed, of whose lack of a way with words much is made, confess to Freddy that he is guilty of Big Dave’s murder, and then to see Freddy ponder the confession for a moment before rejecting it as something that couldn’t be sold to a jury. For Freddy, reality is whatever he can make twelve rather slow and ruddy-faced Santa Rosans believe. There is also a great comic bit as Freddy attempts to turn to his purposes something about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle — “A Kraut scientist. Fritz, I think his name was. Or maybe Werner” — that he got out of Life magazine.
If the film had stopped here, it would have been about a hundred per cent better than it is, but it goes on and on — and on — until it becomes a cinematic shaggy dog story whose focus is too diffuse and whose reason for being seems to be only so that the Coens can showcase their dazzling repertoire of visual and verbal tricks. But the vehicle they are using, poor old chain-smoking Ed, is too much a nonentity, a little man with nothing to say for himself, so that they are forced to keep finding ways to make him look more interesting than he is. Moreover, we are more and more struck by the incongruity of the wordiness in his voiceover narration, as he explains with a great many more words than necessary what a quiet and untalkative sort of guy he is.
One plus is that Thornton has a much more interesting face in black and white than he does in color, which makes him seem almost a dead ringer, at times, for Humphrey Bogart. It’s the Fedora, the constant cigarette and the long upper lip that does it, I guess. He is just one of the things that makes this, like nearly all the Coen movies, compulsively watchable and never less than entertaining. But oh how I wish the brothers could be got to simplify their moral vision again, as they have done in their best movies. That truth is elusive and life absurd is old news by now, while the old old news — that goodness is to be preferred to evil and that some truths really are true, for instance — suddenly seems new again.