Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is a barber. Actually, he’s a barber by accident. Second chair at a two-man shop in the small northern California town of Santa Rosa, Ed’s really a barber by accident. He’s okay at what he does, but he’s hardly enthusiastic. He goes to work every day, where he cuts heads or reads magazines while waiting for customers. His boss is his wife’s brother Frank (Michael Badalucco), a real chatterbox.
You learn all this about Ed in the first few minutes of Joel and Ethan Coen’s new movie, The Man Who Wasn’t There (which tied for the Best Director’s Prize at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival). Ed doesn’t talk much to anyone around him, but in his weary narration for the film, he gives up a lot of info, mostly about how he feels about his job (“Yeah I worked in a barber shop, but I never considered myself a barber; I only work here”), his wife Doris (Frances McDormand), and his goofily amiable brother-in-law. While Ed confides his dissatisfaction, you also get a glimpse of how he sees the world, the camera peering down at scalps or neck napes, apparently always in need of trimming or cutting or buzzing. It’s a living, but it’s not a particularly rewarding or exciting one.
The fact that this intelligent, insightful, and resonant movie is shot in black and white (by the great Roger Deakins) makes these scalp shots especially compelling, stark, ominous, simultaneously clinical and poetic. For Ed, they represent the dead end his life has become, his belief that he’s stuck with Doris, Frank, and all these unkempt heads forever. Not incidentally, “now” is 1949, just around the time that Hollywood directors like Billy Wilder and John Huston were making films noirs, reflecting then-current white males’ post-war anxieties, concerning increasingly visible and demanding women, increasingly limited career opportunities, and the stifling sameness of their everyday lives. In the old noirs, regular guys (Walter Neff in Double Indemnity) or detectives (Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon) would have to think their ways through complicated and life-threatening situations, involving exotic femmes fatales or sinister, gat-carrying gangster-types, the whole business shrouded in murky shadows.
In more recent noirs, the plot and concerns are much the same: a guy (rarely a girl) is looking to “beat the house,” get out of his grim circumstance, figure out a mystery, or save his own life, and to that end, engages in unpleasant or otherwise trying activities, like, for instance, becoming involved with a woman he doesn’t really mean to, or committing a murder by accident. This combination of haplessness and intrigue—particularly as it occurs within a marriage—clearly interests the Coens, who have made a few forays into the genre already, most notably with their breakout feature, Blood Simple (where no one—not the illicit lovers, nasty husband, or sweaty detective, was able to get out from under the trouble once it started), and The Big Lebowski, a sort of perverse updating of the genre in which the ultra-passive Dude (Jeff Bridges) becomes entangled in another sort of marital betrayal.
This time, the problems again begin with an unhappy marriage: whether he sees it in himself or not, it seems clear that Ed resents Doris, for the dulllsville career with which he’s been saddled, not to mention a loveless relationship. When she starts stepping out on him with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini), Ed’s actually not displeased, except that it magnifies his own sense of restlessness. And so, when an opportunity for escape presents itself, an opportunity that includes a chance to get back at Big Dave, who also happens to have married into his position, to the daughter of a major department store owner, wan Ann Nirdlinger (Katherine Bordowitz). Ed’s chance comes in the form of a smarmy, badly toupe-ed stranger named Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), who comes for a cut (of his remaining hair), and while in the chair, blabs about a business proposition. He has a great idea—dry cleaning—and needs a silent partner to put up $10,000. After watching Doris and Big Dave pretend not to be having an affair during a dinner at the Cranes’ home, Ed decides it’s time to do something.
His move isn’t exactly thought out, but it is almost instantly effective: everything changes. First off, Ed is met with serious discomfort when Big Dave comes to Ed for advice on what to do, laying out the entire situation, without naming the woman with whom he’s having the affair, of course. Ed listens patiently to Big Dave’s dilemma, while the store’s Christmas party swinging away so decorously in the background, and then suggests that he pay the blackmailer. Throughout the conversation, the men’s faces are cast in severe shadows; both are lying, neither can muster the nerve to fess up, they’re digging themselves into deeper and deeper moral and psychic holes. “I felt bad for Big Dave,” Ed tells you, “But Doris was two-timing me, and I guess that pinched a little.”
The next scene delivers what appears to be Ed’s salvation, as he follows the sound of a piano playing. There in the music section of the department store is the high school-aged daughter of one of his barber shop clients, Birdy (Scarlett Johansson), lovely and innocent, apart from the treacheries and miseries of adults. “Did you make that up?” he asks awkwardly. Um, no, it’s a Beethoven sonata, but Birdy’s pleased enough that Ed praises her. They sit and talk, and Ed is clearly struck by the perfection of her straightforwardness and ease with herself. Unlike the previous scene, this one is lit and composed to underline their briefly shared mutual appreciation. It’s sexual, as it must be, given Ed’s current frustrations, but it’s purer and more poignant than that too. And at that moment, Doris appears in the doorway. Ed returns to his life.
Increasingly, he recognizes the shallowness and meanness of that life, the mishaps that shape it and his lack of self-understanding. One thing leads to another, in particular, Ed accidentally kills someone and someone else is arrested for the murder. The pricey lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) descends on Santa Rosa from out of town, and proceeds to make the case all about him, his reputation, his knowledge, his fancy hotel room, his theories about the case, his career. Riedenschneider is so wrapped up in himself that he doesn’t believe Ed’s confession, judging it too ridiculous to serve as a defense for the accused. Again, Ed is left to wonder what he’s doing. As he walks in elegant black and white slow motion, his voice-over intones, “It was like I was a ghost walking down the street.” And indeed he looks like one, or maybe like a man who isn’t—or doesn’t want to be—there.
The question is, where is “there”? Though it names and creates a specific location, The Man Who Wasn’t There is also all about dislocation, the sense of not belonging, not knowing how to belong, and not really wanting to belong to the place where he finds himself. Ed is supremely lost, not belonging anywhere or to anyone. Though he tries to give himself to Birdy (or to find himself in her), in the sense that he offers to pay for her piano lessons, to help her become a professional, to escape from Santa Rosa, as he cannot. He misjudges her interest, her talent, and his own capacity to help. Or more precisely, he misjudges himself, again, unable to measure his own feelings or truth.
His powerlessness and sense of loss become painfully evident—to you anyway—during one of those trademark Coen brothers scenes, when everything breaks open to reveal the simultaneous absurdity and profundity of what you’re watching. One creepily windy evening, Ed is approached by Ann Nirdlinger. She tells him what appears to be a cockamamie story about seeing Big Dave abducted by aliens, and Ed is visibly lost. He can’t think what to say, how to help, where to turn to escape, all in his own front yard. “Sometimes,” he finally says, “Knowledge is a curse.” And this is what The Man Who wasn’t There is about, the limits of knowledge, the cracks through which you inevitably fall, the emptiness that haunts you, even as you pretend to be “there.”