“Me, I don’t talk much…I just cut the hair”
The Man Who Wasn’t There is a Coen Brothers film released in 2001. Shot entirely in black and white in order to enhance the neo-noir style, it follows a small town barber named Ed Crane as he struggles with every problem Joel and Ethan Coen can think to throw at him. Throughout the film Ed has to deal with an alcoholic wife, an affair, multiple deaths, court trials and the mental breakdown of family members, to name but a few, dealing with each in the same silent, chain smoking manner. Lead actor Billy Bob Thornton truly carries the film, providing the narration that ties the story together as well as managing to create an alienated yet ultimately sympathetic lead role in that of Ed Crane, not an easy combination by any means. Stand-out scenes include Ed’s musings on life and the universe, centred around the seemingly unstoppable growth of hair, as well as the court room scene in which Sacramento lawyer Freddy Reidenschneider (played by Tony Shalhoub) constructs a defence that centres on the uncertainty principle and the common man in a masterfully written speech that Crane says “Even had me going“.
If this review doesn’t seem to focus on a story in any real sense this is because The Man Who Wasn’t There is most definitely one of the Coen Brothers less plot orientated films, with the Brothers content to simply create the cast and let them meander through life as they please. Whilst on paper this looks to be a disastrous move the spellbinding performances of all of the cast members mean that it’s only when the credits roll that you actually realise how little structure there is in the film’s 2 hour running time. This meandering path is also wryly acknowledged by the writers, with Crane saying in one of the final scenes “Pardon me if sometimes I’ve told you more than you wanted to know”. Despite this acknowledgement the film does seem to be elongated, more befitting a 90 minute run time than the 2 hours it is given, but this seems a small complaint in the face of a window into the human condition so gripping that sometimes it seems hard to believe that the characters on screen are not in fact real people, forced to deal with hardships beyond their comprehension.