Hello super-stylised black and white Coen film, gosh you’re gorgeous. And welcome, Scarlett Johansson to Coen-land, back in the days before you were superstar famous and just before you became one of my favourite actresses based almost solely on this and Ghost World. It’s kinda sad that I’m fairly agnostic about you now.
I don’t think I’ve seen The Man Who Wasn’t There since I saw it in the cinema, in Leicester Square on a trip to London as like, the world’s coolest 18 year old (ha). I remember thinking that it was very very good. In fact, until A Serious Man bumped it I might have kept listing in in my top 3 or 4 Coens – but that might also just be the hangover of very serious late teen pretension. (We’ll see if I still think A Serious Man is that good in a few days, too).
‘Me, I don’t talk much, I just cut the hair’
So, welcome to mid-century middle America, where Billy Bob Thornton and Frances McDormand are definitely not the mom and pop you want, even if they do live in a nice house and play bingo in church on Tuesday. Only the Coens could make a dark little extortion noir that hangs on a man’s attempt to raise the money to set up a dry cleaning business – and incorporate some existential angst about hair
‘You’re gonna burn yourself’
So says Ed to Dave, as Dave holds a cigar too close to his hair, while Dave confesses to Ed about his affair (with Ed’s wife Doris) and the blackmail letter he’s just received – from Ed. In this film, nobody actually ends up burned – the film is too glacial to allow burning – but every one of the main trio ends up dead. Never go in for affairs and blackmail, kids.
I have some discomfort about the Birdy subplot. I get why Ed wants so desperately to do something good and nice to make up for all the awfulness that has unfurled from his desire to break into the dry cleaning business, and I get why Birdy, the so terribly polite an almost-young-lady (Johansson is wonderfully half way between girl and woman in this film) that she’s not got the potential to be a great concert pianist, would allow him to do so. But her response on the car ride home from the audition? I don’t buy it and I’m uncomfortable with it.
Aside from that (or perhaps including that), the film as a whole is quite wonderfully bleak. Mr Atlantic Reviewer bemoans the fact that it has neither black comedy nor enough moral consequence for it to really work, but I think I disagree. I think that Frank, Doris’ brother and Ed’s boss at the barber shop, is the soft beating heart of the film, the only character properly engaged with emotions and morality – and he provides the sense of how far off the rails everything has gone.
- Empty Roads? There feel like very few long shots in this film – but one time the camera does pull back and let’s the viewer see more of what is in front of Ed, the road is not empty.
- Terrifyingly bright daylight? Illuminating the lawyer Freddy Riedenschneider (Tony Shalhoub) pace in the bright light streaming through the prison window, framed by the shadows of the bars, and at one point gloriously silhouetted – as he explains the uncertainty principle as related to the law.
- Incredible Carter Burwell score? There is a Carter Burwell score, and the main theme is just lovely. But basically, he’s upstaged by Beethoven – and if you’re gonna be upstaged it should probably be by him. I like that Burwell doesn’t bother trying to make his score fight with Beethoven for attention.
- Very realistic violence? One struggle for survival between Ed and Dave, one car crash.
- Extremely black lines delivered straight? This, delivered just after Ed has killed Dave.
‘It was only a couple weeks later she suggested getting married. I said, “Don’t you want to get to know me more?” She said, “Why? Does it get better?”’
- An obsession with odd hair? Just an (odd) obsession with hair.
‘I thought about what an undertaker had told me once – that your hair keeps growing, for a while anyway, after you die, and then it stops. I thought, “What keeps it growing? Is it like a plant in soil? What goes out of the soil? The soul? And when does the hair realize that it’s gone?”‘
And pretty great female leads? Well, there are two key female roles: Doris and Birdy (Johanssen) – but neither of them are particularly major roles. Really, they are both quite slight, plot-device-y parts, that only deliver more because of Johansson and McDormand.