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The Man Who Wasn't There (2002)

A movie directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

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Shaves close -- but with the knicks and cuts of a blade

  • Mar 6, 2010
was a great noir debut about misunderstanding identity.
Raising Arizona was a screwball comedy about stealing an identity.
Miller's Crossing was a deep gangster movie about discovering identity ("Nobody knows anybody. Not that well")
Barton Fink was a Hollywood insiders movie about understanding your own identity.
The Hudsucker Proxy was a fast-talking dialogue driven 1930s comedy about keeping your identity in the face of all odds against.
Fargo changed the thread to highlight one of the all time great quiet heroes, perhaps as an embodied example of a hero totally secure in her identity.
The Big Lebowski - 10th Anniversary Edition made the adult stoner a bowling phenomenon but left me flat. I saw it as a step down from the rest of Coen Brothers catalog; perhaps I was expected too much after the hype.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? turned Greek tragedy combined with roots music into an American classic; Not of a piece with the rest of the CB films, it still shines with the slickness of George Clooney's pomade (he's a Dapper Dan man, you know).

Next up in the Coen Brothers tour is this return to some of the earlier themes. "Wasn't There" stars Billy Bob Thornton as a man of few words. most of them in his slow, methodical cigarette-edged growl on the voice-over narration. On screen, his character is nearly silent. In fact, this movie might have easily been made and effective as a silent movie outside of the narration.

The story is a powerful one: Thornton is Ed Krane, a barber in his brother-in-law's shop, and Frances McDormand is his wife Doris, who keeps the books at the big department store in town (in 1949, when department stores were powerful locally-owned businesses). "I don't talk much. I just cut the hair", says Ed. Doris does talk, too much, and ends up in an affair with the department story heir's husband. When he ends up dead, Doris is arrested, and Ed's life unravels.

In truth, Ed, Doris, Frank (who owns the barbershop), and the town itself seems to be on the edge of unraveling from the beginning of the movie (much like the collapsing Hollywood hotel in Barton Fink). Ed, with his silent ways, steady hands, and stolid eyes seems to be holding things together, but as we learn in the narration and can see in his eyes as the movie progresses, he is unraveling inside just like everyone else, only quieter. Indeed, after Doris's arrest, which is the talk of the town, he says that people look through him like he isn't there when he walks down the street, hence the title of the movie and its great theme. The theme is reinforced when the high-priced out-of-town lawyer Frank hires to defend Doris interrupts Ed by saying: "I'm an attorney, you're a barber; you don't know anything." I don't normally like Thornton, but he is powerful, poignant, and proud yet quietly pleading for relevance and recognition when he says in the narration "I was a ghost. I didn't see anyone. No one saw me. I was the barber."

The cinematography is excellent as well in the movie, with the beautifully nuanced shades of black and white showing light and shadow as it defines and separates people. The most memorable camera shot in the movieshows the arrogant lawyer standing in sunlight pouring through the window of the jail holding room where he is interviewing Doris, framed and caged by the shadows of the bars on the window falling across his face and body. For all his money and arrogance he too wasn't there.

Is Ed heroic? No, not by half. But he isn't just a barber, either, or a ghost--any more than we all are. His fate is ours. Great movie.

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October 25, 2010
I've seen this once and this must be one of the Coen's weakest IMO. I remember it being a nice looking movie and a well acted movie with a nice cast, but man this movie just wasn't engaging to me.
More The Man Who Wasn't There reviews
review by . February 04, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
I Wish I wasn't....There.
Bar none the Coen's remain my favorite film makers but the 2000's didn't start out for them that well.      O Brother, was loved by some and panned by others, there was this film and later came Intolerable Cruelty which some saw as too commercial and The Ladykillers for being too weak for some including myself.      The Man Who Wasn't There isn't a "bad" movie but it could have been filmed on ambien instead of film cause it can …
Quick Tip by . October 20, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
One of the worst movies I've ever seen, made even worse by the fact that the Coen Brothers did it (yea they make sucky movies but their good ones are brilliant). Tony Shaloob's character partly explains Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle at some point in the movie--I wanted to be uncertain about it, but no--it is just simply wretched.
Quick Tip by . November 06, 2009
Extremely low key Coen Brother movie about a barber who attempts to get rich quick but should have stayed in his obscure and boring routine.
review by . April 17, 2002
posted in Movie Hype
Though not a passionate Coen brothers' films fan, I think THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE is more than just another one of their quirky films. This beautifully photographed film unfolds a story so unique that it justifies all the directorial techniques it receives. Billy Bob Thornton, Frances McDormand, and James Gandolfini are visually and technically marvelous. The method of telling this dark tale of revengeful moves in black and white accompanied by piano sonatas of Beethoven is a delight. The twists …
review by . February 20, 2002
posted in Movie Hype
Pros: Billy Bob! Frances McDormand     Cons: nothing     The Bottom Line: Bottom line is that this film is a WINNER.     Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot. I live in such a googy small town that this was playing as a "Special Events" - the regular movie houses wouldn't touch it! Looking back - I think it was a perfect choice.      The latest by the Cohen Brothers is not a dissapointment …
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Todd Stockslager ()
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I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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About this movie


For all of its late-1940s cold war paranoia, pulp fiction dialogue, and frenzied greed, Joel and Ethan Coen'sThe Man Who Wasn't Thereis their most cool and collected film sinceBlood Simple. An unassuming barber with a scheming wife (Frances McDormand) and a serious smoking habit, Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) is an onlooker to his own life, a ghostly presence set against a silver-toned film noir backdrop. Only when he decides to alter his fate by blackmailing his wife's lover (James Gandolfini) in order to invest with a traveling salesman (Jon Polito) touting the wave of the future--dry cleaning--do we begin to hear the full extent of Ed's understated, existential lament. As his lawyer (Tony Shalhoub) says in Ed's defense at his eventual trial for murder, "He is modern man." Thornton's deadpan eloquence and cinematographer Roger Deakins's precision lighting offer the perfect counterbalance to the requisite one-liners, plot twists, and false endings that have come to characterize recent Coen brothers films. Almost in spite of the obsessive cultural references (flying saucers, Nabokov'sLolita, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle), Ed Crane steps neatly from the fray as one of cinema's most memorably disenchanted characters.--Fionn Meade

The Coen brothers' THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE is a brilliantly photographed black-and-white absurdist noir set in Santa Rosa, California, in 1949. Ed Crane (the outstanding Billy Bob ...
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Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Genre: Crime, Drama
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
DVD Release Date: April 16, 2002
Runtime: 116 minutes
Studio: Universal Studios
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