The Man Who Wasn’t There

The Man Who Wasn’t ThereRated R
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Joel and Ethan Coen


The high concept for this film might be described as “Double Indemnity” meets “The Third Man” with a touch of whimsy. Here, the Coen brothers have attempted to recreate the film noir (black cinema) of the 1940s and early 1950s. And have done a pretty damned good job. However, the slow pacing and black and white portrayal of this story are likely to turn off many viewers who aren’t familiar with the genre.

The throughline for most film noir is one of existentialist angst. The main character is caught in a trap, often of his own devising, and from which there is no escape. Nobody can be trusted. The extreme lighting and shadows flickering about the screen echo the shadows within the hearts of the characters. Cigarette smoke abounds. Femme fatales complicate the hero’s decisions. The human condition is revealed to us as a cess-pool of lust, greed, betrayal…but fascinating in its unexpected twists and ironies.

I’m a huge fan of the Coen Brothers, and just had to see this film. I did enjoy it, but I won’t say it’s their best so far. However, even a so-so Coen Brothers movie is better than 99.99% of the shlock that gets splattered across Hollywood theater screens today.


Santa Rosa, California, 1949.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane. Ed is a barber whose life has been one big disappointment. His occupation, the town he lives in, his wife, and even his life seem to have just happened to him without any conscious decision on his own part. He yearns for something more, for something to wake him from his dreary chain-smoking existence. He doesn’t know what that something will be until one day, it finally comes to him… the answer is drycleaning!

A traveling con-artist, Creighton Tolliver, stops in to have his hair cut and reveals the concept of drycleaning to Ed, then offers him a piece of the action for a measley $10,000.
Ed is not a smart man. He doesn’t have $10,000 either. But he does have a devious idea to get it.

Ed’s wife, Doris, is the bookkeeper at Nirdlinger’s Department Store and is having an affair with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini).

Big Dave came by his position the old fashioned way — he married into it. However, if Dave’s wife, Ann, were to find out her husband was cheating, he would lose everything.

So, Ed writes a blackmail letter to Big Dave, threatening to reveal to Ann and Ed (himself) that Dave is cheating with Doris, unless — you guessed it — $10,000 is left at a secure location.

This sets off a round of murders and plot twists that will keep you guessing for the rest of the film.

Ed is sure he will be arrested and executed for his actions, but things get complicated.
Mysteriously, Ed seems to be let off the hook. But then his wife, Doris, is fingered as the culprit.

Ed tries everything to free her. He hires Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shaloub) whose fees are so high that the barbershop has to be signed over for a bank loan. Ed even breaks down and claims he is guilty (which he is) but nobody will listen. The wheels of Fate are set in motion.

Along the way, several strange things happen to Ed, including an alien visitation and an offer for a blow job from a teenage pianist named Birdy (Scarlett Johansson), but the strangest twist of all is how Fate eventually claims him.

Don’t expect million dollar special effects, but if you are in the mood for complex story with style and clever acting, then look no further.