“He told them to look not at the facts, but at the meaning of the facts. Then he said the facts had no meaning.”
“They got this guy, in Germany. Fritz Something-or-other. Or is it? Maybe it’s Werner. Anyway, he’s got this theory, you wanna test something, you know, scientifically – how the planets go round the sun, what sunspots are made of, why the water comes out of the tap – well, you gotta look at it. But sometimes you look at it, your looking changes it. Ya can’t know the reality of what happened, or what would’ve happened if you hadn’t-a stuck in your own g-ddamn schnozz. So there is no ‘what happened’? Not in any sense that we can grasp, with our puny minds. Because our minds… our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it. They call it the “Uncertainty Principle”. Sure, it sounds screwy, but even Einstein says the guy’s on to something.”
“I was a ghost. I didn’t see anyone. No one saw me. I was the barber.”
The words come as Ed Crane (known as the Barber) played by Billy Bob Thornton sits alone in his house. His wife, Doris (another Frances McDormand appearance) is in jail for a murder she did not commit but that he did. Was the crime a murder or self-defense? The scene of violence, which the audience sees, can certainly be interpreted as the latter but how does the factor that the Barber was blackmailing his victim play into the whole situation? The Barber has also discovered she was having an affair on him with the man he killed. Yet, he still loves his wife.
Nothing seems easy within the confines of this Coen film shot beautifully in black and white as if the gray on screen is an eerie poetry. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” is probably one of the more obscure movies in the Coen catalog. In some ways that is a shame because the movie is well worth watching however, it would also be fair to say that this is not their top tier work. The writing is top notch and offers incredible insight and depth to how human beings think about things. Reason. Doubt. Science. Faith. Reasonable Doubt. The film is also immaculately shot by Roger Deakins (the frequent Coen contributor) who was nominated for an Oscar for his work.
The issue for some is probably the pacing and, as with any Coen work, some strange elements but they may be pushing the boundaries of strange with this film.
The setting is again California (this time in northern CA and in a small town) in 1949. The Barber cuts hair, of course, and thinks of wanting to open a dry cleaning business (a new technology at that point). He is a laconic, chain smoker with big, sad eyes. The decision to blackmail Big Dave (James Gandolfini who was playing Tony Soprano at the time) to obtain money to open the dry cleaner goes terribly wrong. At one point, Big Dave’s wife Ann, comes to the Barber and confesses that she and Big Dave had seen a UFO and had a bizarre experience. Here we have the window for the Coens to explore the California moonbeam culture.
A thematic element is strongly suggested as being scientific knowledge is not enough for people to find meaning in life. A character exclaims: “Knowledge can be a curse.” People must have an overarching philosophy that guides and colors how they perceive and see the world. For Big Dave and Ann, this was an encounter with aliens in a UFO. What is it for the Barber? Maybe his love for his wife.
This theme about science and perception is further developed by Scarlet Johansson who plays Birdy Abundas. She is a technically great piano player but is criticized by a piano teacher for having no soul in her music. She can hit all the right notes in rudimentary fashion but where is the passion behind her art?
“The Man Who Wasn’t There” is definitely the most serious of the Coen Brother filmography. The only time I laughed out loud was during a scene where the Barber wakes up in a hospital bed to three faces peering in at him. I won’t reveal why he is there or who is talking to him during this scene but it is funny. Actually, given the humor in this scene, there does seem to be a disconnect with the rest of the film because the proceedings are so melancholy and reflective.
The Coens often pay homage to film history in ways and here they going for the classic 1940s film noir. It may be one of their more serious films but it also has engaging poetic reflections on life. One of the Barber’s final narrations illustrates this very point: “I don’t know where I’m being taken. I don’t know what I’ll find, beyond the earth and sky. But I’m not afraid to go. Maybe the things I don’t understand will be clearer there, like when a fog blows away. Maybe Doris will be there. And maybe there I can tell her all those things they don’t have words for here.”
Lester Lauding Level: 3.5 (out of 5)
Ranking of Coen Bros Movie (so far):
Fargo (review here)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (review here)
The Big Lebowski (review here)
Miller’s Crossing (review here)
The Hudsucker Proxy (review here)
Raising Arizona (review here)
The Man Who Wasn’t There
Blood Simple (review here)
Barton Fink (Review here)