If it's Wednesday, you must be Ed Crane. Or perhaps Creighton Tolliver. Or perhaps Freddy Riedenschneider. If you're not, congratulations. You probably wouldn't want to be one of the doomed (or eternally self-absorbed) characters from Joel and Ethan Coen's 2001 marvel The Man Who Wasn't There, and for lots of reasons. Bill Ryan, head pot-stirrer at The Kind of Face You Hate, and I have decided to spend what remains of this week (and hours into the weekend if we so choose) examining some of those reasons. The Man Who Wasn't There is a mysterious movie, even among the Coen Brothers' body of mysterious work, and we thought it would be fun to revisit the movie (I hadn't seen it in 10 years) and think about why it continues to hold a spell on us, even if it's not a particular favorite of many Coen Brothers fans. I'll be back later today with my response which has been percolating in my head like a bad cup of barber shop coffee, even in my dreams, since I saw the movie again last night. It falls to Bill to kick off the discussion. Bill?
Okay, I’m going to try to begin with a “grabber”: The Man Who Wasn’t There is the only Coen Brothers film that ever made me uncomfortable.
Wow, who could ever stop reading after that bombshell? So let me write some more things to keep that momentum going. First, I should probably note that I do love the Coens’ comedies, but my preference is for their more serious (which isn’t always synonymous with “violent”, but often is, and also, curiously, is almost never antonymous with “funny”, which is more to the point I will eventually be making) films. The Man Who Wasn’t There followed two straight comedies, two great ones, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou. Even as a fan of both of those – especially the latter, at least at the time, though now it’s probably a push – I was raring for the Coens to get back to what, given Blood Simple, you’d have to call their roots. Except of course they have two sets of roots, their second film being the entirely zany Raising Arizona, so the tonal divide has always been there, and has always been hazy, Blood Simple having a few laughs of its own.
This has also contributed to a common knock against the Coens, at least indirectly, which has to do with their alleged coldness, and, especially, the mocking and disdainful regard in which they supposedly hold their characters. As someone who has been moved by Raising Arizona, O Brother, Where Are Thou, Fargo, No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man, even Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski, and who loves HI and Edwina and Marge and Ulysses and Tom and Leo and the Dude and Donny and Walter, and so on, I’ve always bristled, at the very least, at this ridiculous criticism, especially since, for a while, this was received wisdom for a while. “Yes, they hate their characters – we must use this as the base from which to build our opinion.” That, and the idea that, with their interest in genre films and styles from early Hollywood, the Coens were merely constructing pastiches or spoofs or icy, ironic dissections, rather than real, full-blooded movies. The answer to that came from either Joel or Ethan (whichever) around the time of The Hudsucker Proxy, when he said (paraphrase): “We think, ‘Hey we like this kind of movie, let’s make one,’ as opposed to ‘Let’s comment upon them.’”
There’s so much that goes into my initial reaction to The Man Who Wasn’t There that I don’t want to get lost in it so early, but basically, with all this in mind, going to see it in the theater in 2001, I was mighty pumped for it. It was a crime film, specifically in the noir style, even black and white, a visual approach I was very excited to see the Coens (and Roger Deakins) take, and a wonderful cast led by one of my then-and-probably-still-I-guess favorite modern actors, Billy Bob Thornton (never have the Coens cast better than they did here). As for its antecedents as a crime story, if Miller's Crossing is Dashiell Hammett, and The Big Lebowski is Raymond Chandler (in a roundabout way), then The Man Who Wasn't There was James M. Cain, with some Jim Thompson in there, too. Cain's characters tend to have a lot of misguided passion, which Thompson's characters can have, too, but the very gradual shift in morals that occurs in The Man Who Wasn't There feels more like some of Thompson's work. The setting -- the California no one else writes about, the everyday California, with small businessmen looking for some meager leg up, casual adultery, and one choice made by one man that brings down the whole world (plus, the final few minutes is straight The Postman Always Rings Twice territory). And I watched it, and I just didn’t know what to make of the damn thing. The tone of it had me all screwed up. Even early on, when James Gandolfini as Big Dave tells his story of World War II cannibalism, a grotesquely absurd tale that he uses as a punchline any time he doesn't like his wife's cooking ("What do I say when I don't like dinner?"), I wondered how seriously the Coens were taking this thing that I wanted them to take very seriously, indeed.
And later, with the UFOs, and Birdy's (Scarlett Johansson) attempt to thank Thornton's Ed Crane, which adds some let's say highly adult themes to some deliberately old-fashioned, rear-projected mayhem, plus let's not forget Jon Polito's very welcome return to the Coen fold, yet still, I thought (then), weird presence as Creighton Tolliver, the gay, innocent (in comparison to most people in the film), vain, and be-wigged dry cleaner whose search for an investor leads to the deaths of pretty much all the film's principle characters. All of this left me unsteady, in a way I wasn't used to with the Coens, who up to then seemed to be making one film after another that was pitched specifically to my sensibilities. Of course, it's hardly as if The Man Who Wasn't There feels like anything other than a Coen brothers film, and their movies always have jokes, but I felt like, for the first time, the charge that perhaps the Coens are too ironic for their own good, and less interested in making films than in mocking them, might not be too far off.
The scene that really made me squirm, when I saw it in the theater, is the bit where Diedrickson (Alan Fudge, one of an endless parade of unknown character actors in Coen brothers films who come in, nail the part, and then seemingly disappear from the film world once again), the medical examiner, comes into the barber shop where Ed works with his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco). At this point, Ed has killed Big Dave, after blackmailing him for the money needed to invest in Creighton's dry-cleaning business, using Dave's affair with Ed's wife Doris (Frances McDormand) as the leverage. However, for various circumstantial reasons, Doris has been accused of the murder, and was awaiting trial when she suddenly commits suicide. Diedrickson asks to take Ed across the street for a drink, and in a gorgeous shot of deep black wood and shadows splashed with white sunlight, he reveals to Ed, because he thinks Ed has a right to know, that Doris was pregnant at the time of her death. After a pause, Ed, staring straight ahead, says "My wife and I have not performed the sex act in many years."
In the theater, this got a big laugh from the crowd I saw it with. I didn't laugh. Not because I'm so much better than those people, but because, for one thing, I didn't find even Ed's ridiculous choice of words that funny, but also because I didn't want to. There wasn't much in that situation that I could find humorous, and it bothered me that, clearly, the Coens could.
Now, I realize this all makes me sound like a stone-faced, uptight prig. Maybe I was, or am, or something. But I found the film very frustrating in a way I didn't want to admit, because, Coen brothers super-fan that I am, to not like their new film, especially for these reasons, would be like admitting defeat. And of course the new and separate danger (not really) is that by admitting this, my eventual turnaround on the film, which came much earlier than my recent viewing of it in preparation for this project, it could easily appear that I'm talking myself into liking it.
I do not believe that's the case, not least because even from the beginning there were parts of this film that I absolutely loved. There was nothing in The Man Who Wasn't There that I loved more than the sequence that has Ed putting his drunk wife to bed, while Ed's narration recounts their first date -- one which would seem to have offered little promise, but which also neatly forecast their future together -- only to be interrupted by a ringing phone, which leads to the killing of Big Dave, and Ed's return home, with clean hands, to resume his narration, the shadows of lacey curtains fluttering over his face, while Beethoven's "Piano Sonata, Opus 79" (I had to look that up) underlines all this awful grimness with counterintuitive beauty. This sequence is as good as anything the Coens have ever done, and it's the sort of thing I held onto tightly as I left the theater in 2001.
Boy, there's a lot more. The UFOs, the performances, the strange, shaggy final stretch, Freddy Riedenschneider, Ed's strange and empty pursuit for redemption, what that title's all about, not to mention, among other unmentioned things, my final turnaround. But what about you? Did this film ever make you uneasy? Does the film seem anything like the strangest of the Coens films, as I, changed opinion or not, persist in believing? Just what do you make of this?