The Man Who Wasn’t There

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen) is an excellent black and white movie, where every shadow has a purpose, where the atmosphere of the 1940′ is completely recreated, where the close-ups tell stories themselves. A rich source for interpretations. Billy Bob Thornton is brilliant in the skin of a man who likes to be an observer of his own life, forced to act by a blind and ironic fate. The images of haircuts, aka. types of personalities or hidden beings inside ourselves, reappear as a central metaphor. The scene in which Ed kills Big Dave is dominated by the constant ticking of a clock, bringing a metaphysical dimension in an otherwise very mundane course of events.

                                        Ed Crane: Time slows down right before an accident, and I had time to think about things. 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?”


„The Man Who Wasn’t There is a modern film in black and white, falling somewhere in between the works of Raymond Chandler and Albert Camus. It has all the trappings of noir: a deadpan, sardonic protagonist, a heavily shadowed atmosphere, and a crime of both money and passion. But its idea, the question it poses over and over, is undeniably modern. “What kind of man are you?” Ed is asked, repeatedly. But being just another gear in the machinery of society, it’s a question he’s hard-pressed to find an answer to.

Many moviegoers would ask why anyone would willingly film a movie in black and white. It’s often been seen as the restriction of an era and medium. After all, as history has shown us, if directors could film in color, they did. Well, not quite. (…)

 In fact, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a working experiment that shows black and white cinematography can often be essential to the story itself. With their obsessive attention to detail, the Coens didn’t just set out to create a homage to the noir genre, they created a film that from all appearances could have existed nearly sixty years ago. Much of the movie is made with black and white in mind. The drabness of Ed’s life is well-suited to the medium. The interplay of light and shadow create contrasts between characters and settings. Seeing Ed walk with half of his face obscured is a telling indication of his nature. Cigarette smoke becomes an integral prop–Ed chain smokes through nearly every scene in the movie. The curling wisps of smoke in the light create a surrealism to an otherwise hard reality. With slight adjustments to the lighting and exposure, the cinematographer, Roger Deakins, effortlessly creates scenes of banality, mystery, and drama.

The film, however, does more than showcase style. The story of Ed Crane’s fall is carefully balanced between personalities and the circumstances driving them. There are many characters woven into the plot, some of them more important than others. Yet all of them have distinct traits and mannerisms that make them stand out on their own. Ed is perhaps the most paradoxical of them all.  He could be called an “everyman,” except that there’s not an ounce of variety in him. There’s little that he reacts to. His low, dispassionate voice rarely betrays any emotion. All in all, he makes a brick wall look lively. So what’s his appeal?

 Something is writhing underneath the surface of Ed. His expression lies somewhere in between discontent and disgust. He finds out that his wife is sleeping with her boss, Big Dave Brewster. Does he care? It’s hard to tell where he stands with it all.

 Then one day at the barber shop, a sleazy entrepreneur is looking for venture capital for a business he wants to start. It’s the future of the service industry. It’s called dry-cleaning. At first Ed barely pays him any mind, but the thought of becoming something more than a barber at his brother-in-law’s shop begins to eat at him. He decides to put up the $10,000 capital. How is he getting the money? He’s going to blackmail Big Dave, threatening to expose his affair with Mrs. Crane. Maybe he doesn’t care all that much.

 The plot spirals out from there with key characters dying and people you wouldn’t expect to be accused of the crimes ending up in jail. Along the way, there are some illuminating performances by Frances McDormand, Tony Shalhoub, and Scarlett Johansson.

 Does Ed ever find out what kind of man he is? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps what he finds out in the end is that the search for our identity in this brave new world becomes our identity. And by the time that search comes to its inevitable end, we’ve stop caring about what we were looking for in the first place.”

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~ de AlinaT pe 09/06/2011.

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