1949, Santa Rosa, California. A laconic, chain-smoking barber with fallen arches tells a story of a man trying to escape a humdrum life. It's a tale of suspected adultery, blackmail, foul play, death, Sacramento city slickers, racial slurs, invented war heroics, shaved legs, a gamine piano player, aliens, and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Ed Crane cuts hair in his in-law's shop; his wife drinks and may be having an affair with her boss, Big Dave, who has $10,000 to invest in a second department store. Ed gets wind of a chance to make money in dry cleaning. Blackmail and investment are his opportunity to be more than a man no one notices. Settle in the chair and listen.Written by
Was the last film to be released by Gramercy Pictures before the company was revived in 2015. See more »
When Ed first sees Birdy play the piano, her hands are not in the right places and do not move enough to play the notes heard. See more »
Yeah, I worked in a barbershop, but I never considered myself a barber. I stumbled into it. Or married into it, more precisely.
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The opening titles cast shadows on the wall as if they are real. See more »
Though original intended to be released in black and white, the movie was originally shot in color. Some countries released the movie in color (e.g. Japan) for marketing reasons. Both versions are released on home media. See more »
It starts as another Coenian postmod pastichey picaresque: Noir Guy (Billy Bob Thornton), a barber, has a souse of a wife (Frances McDormand, floridly cast "against type") who loves bingo and her boss at work, a scheming fat man named Big Dave (James Gandolfini). When a comically inept con man (Jon Polito) comes to town, wanting to find a partner in a new business called "dry cleaning," we can see the signs a block away: Blackmail, best-laid-plans, murder ahead. The emphasis in this extremely academic take--more academic even than the Ph.Dish MILLER'S CROSSING--is on the sociological and political roots of noir. The postwarness, the cold-warness, the sunshine-boomtownness of the movie's mythical Santa Rosa (the location of SHADOW OF A DOUBT--but really, it's just early-Ellroy L.A.) are all underlined and double-underlined.
So far, so cool--and the movie is far easier to enjoy as a series of Abstracted Noir Components than the similarly suspension-of-disbelief-free LOST HIGHWAY. But then Noir Guy starts contemplating hair. He is the Sisyphus of Noirtown, performing a perfectly stupid task that never ceases to repeat itself, without gathering the slightest meaning. He even, in his blank way, waxes philosophical, like a Marine-town Woyzeck: "I want...I wanna put hair with...dirt, regular house dirt." "Ed, what the heck are ya talkin' about?" "I...Skip it."
And soon the movie metamorphs into a fedoras-and-Pall-Malls riff on Camus' THE STRANGER. Why does the Man Who Wasn't There kick off the chain of events that brings down all manner of ruination? Jealousy? Boredom? No ordinary human motives will do. And the Coens slyly insert a shyster lawyer (Tony Shalhoub) who's full of dime-store variants on post-structuralist touchstones: he uses the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle as a sort of Twinkie Defense, and claims that his client is "Modern Man himself!...Indict him, and you are indicting yourself!" All of which, the Coens make clear, is so much malarkey--a way of kidding oneself, substituting entropy for dogma, avoiding the scary unknowableness of being alive.
Ethan Coen described THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE as "the movie Martin Heidegger would have made if he had come to Hollywood"--unusually forthright for two guys who are just, aw shucks, entertainers. Like Spielberg's A.I., it uses a perfectedness of technique to render the world as an arrangement of totemic abstractions--pixilated dots that don't add up to a coherent object. The movie gets you, terrifyingly and melancholically, inside the head of a guy for whom the simplest, table-and-chairs stuff is ceasing to make sense. And the brothers use Carter Burwell's variant on Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" in a way that's as crazily persistent, and ceaselessly effective, as the insanely repetitive romantic theme from Godard's CONTEMPT. (Not even Godard has used late Beethoven so aptly.) Like BARRY LYNDON, another movie whose central question is "What kind of a man are you?," THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE has an elusive, smokelike plangency. It's a picture you'll puzzle over, and sigh achingly at its images, for many years to come.
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