MOVIES | The Coens’ “Man Who Wasn’t There” makes metaphysical mincemeat of a solid setup


In my review of the Coen Brothers’ debut feature Blood Simple, I said that it just might be the filmmakers’ most successful movie in the sense that it does precisely what it sets out to do, and does it very well. The Man Who Wasn’t There, their 2001 noir set in 1949, takes a similarly promising setup but then hangs it up to dry while the script muses on the meaning of life. I guess that’s what the brothers meant to do—but did they have to waste such a good plot?

I really enjoyed the first half of Man, which screened earlier this fall as part of the Walker’s Coen retrospective. (I’ve fallen way behind my schedule of reviewing each of the Coens’ films before their Walker screenings, but have decided to carry on with the series of reviews.) It need not be said that the black-and-white cinematography is ravishing, nor that the performances are uniformly strong.

Billy Bob Thornton plays the title character, Ed, a small-town barber who speaks little and serves as an impassive confidante for his clients and other acquaintances. Ed suspects his wife Doris (Frances McDormand) of carrying on with her married boss Big Dave (James Gandolfini), who confides in Ed that he’s been embezzling money. Ed decides to anonymously blackmail Big Dave, threatening to expose Big Dave’s affair with Doris; either Ed will have his suspicions about the affair refuted, or he’ll have the money he needs to fund a promising dry-cleaning venture one of his barbering clients (Jon Polito) has proposed.

It’s a great setup, deployed with serene craft. Once the wheels of Ed’s plot are in motion, though, a character is killed and another character is wrongly imprisoned on suspicion of having done the deed. That sets the stage for the film’s frustrating second act, in which it’s revealed that it doesn’t much matter who committed the crime, or whether anyone did, because truth is relative and existence is probably meaningless. I guess that qualifies as a “surprise ending,” but the existential drama of the movie’s second half is a poor substitute for the real-world drama that fills its first half.

There’s an essay to be written on the Coens’ relationship with genre…but I’ll let you write it; send me the abstract. At its best, the Coens’ intellect fuels smart and entertaining tales that work on their own terms even as they tweak our expectations; but at its worst, it fuels arid intellectual exercises like the concluding half of The Man Who Wasn’t There. Sometimes artists, like kids, can be too smart for their own good.