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Have you ever woken up at night and thought to yourself, "What am I doing here?" The existential folly of it all seizes you and you begin to wonder how you ever wound up where you are. Your livelihood, your relationships, your location, even your most core beliefs seem to have come from external forces, whimsy, random events, opportunities and pitfalls. You wonder if anything about you is genuinely you and not just a convenience, a habit, or an illusion. It's hours before sunrise, but doubt consumes your attention and you don't think you'll sleep again this night.
If this has never happened to you, consider yourself lucky. The Man Who Wasn't There posits that this kind of deep puzzlement is the condition of "modern man," and, if you think about it, the question "Who am I?" can fill one with awe, wonder, and/or dread. The song that keeps going around my mind in conjunction with this is "Once in a Lifetime" by Talking Heads: "And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?"
If you are human enough to feel these pangs of confusion and free-falling and fortunate enough not to fall into complacency or despair, then you might react as David Byrne does and sort of laugh it off as one of those strange and wondrous aspects of being alive. But if you happen to live in a repressively "normal" environment where you get the most peace by keeping your mouth shut, then such feelings, going unaddressed, can escalate until they place a strain on the very fabric of your existence. This is what happens to Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) in the Coen Brothers' remake of The Man Who Wasn't There.
Ed is a barber, not by any choice of his own, but because he married the sister of a man who owns the local barbershop, up there in Santa Rosa, California. He married his wife, not because of any passionate love or even exceedingly strong "like," but because she suggested it. When he asked if they'd known each other long enough, she replied sardonically, "You mean it gets better than this?" Since the answer was an unspoken "no," they decided to get married. I suppose that's what people did in the 40's. But watching their married life is like watching two strangers in a waiting room: Their connection is 5% mutual regard and 95% proximity.
Ed is like a ghost. But one night, opportunity drifts into his life, a long-shot business deal that turns out to be legit, but which carries all the trappings of every sleazy con you can think of. The evidence of Ed's roiling dissatisfaction is how quickly he leaps at the opportunity to become something other than a barber. But before he can become the silent partner in the dry-cleaning business, he has to come up with seed money-ten thousand seeds to be exact. The only way he can think to do it is to blackmail the man who is having an affair with his wife. Heretofore, the fact of the affair rankled Ed, but didn't move him to any action. He accepted it, as his livelihood, as just another bit of gravel in the shoe of life. But with the business venture before Ed, his wife's affair becomes an opportunity to cash in, and Ed takes it, setting in motion a series of disasters that brings down everyone associated with Ed, and, finally, Ed himself.
As in all noir films, there's a sense of destiny, a sense that things, once set in motion, have no choice but to keep moving until the bitter end. I suppose life, in general, is like that, but noir conveys a sense of fatality that is usually absent in the well-adjusted personality. The Man Who Wasn't There portrays only doomed characters who, one after another, suffer under their worst aspects. Ed, shadow-like, witnesses the downfall of everyone around him, the guilty and innocent alike, while moving through life unable to stop the downward spiral. As Conrad's Mr. Kurtz put it, "The horror, the horror."
Black and white film with stark lighting highlights the harshness of the story, and the lines in Thornton's face make him look tired and barely in control of a deep rage. His chain smoking ads foggy swirling to the film as well as an almost palpable olfactory effect.
There is no bastion of wholesomeness in this film: everything is disillusionment. Even the ingenue that Ed briefly tries to take under his wing proves to be far less innocent than Ed expects. The high-priced lawyer, well played by Tony Shalhoub, is interested more in acting than in justice, and finally, it's public opinion, not the truth, that makes people innocent or guilty. In this, we see that it's the closeness of the reflection to real life that makes noir film so effective in conveying alienation and fundamental despair.
So it's strange that the film really isn't such a bring-down as much as a dip into darkness for entertainment's sake. This, then, is the one short fall that the film has. Many films will find ways to make you feel sad and hopeless, but a film whose basic purpose is to entertain won't change anything in your life. If you have felt existential, this film won't put your worry to rest, nor will it incite your mid-life crisis. When the closing credits run, you can get back to your gardening. Dark Days, Wings of Desire, Amelie--these films may change your life. But The Man Who Wasn't There is as ineffectual in reaching out to the real-life world of the viewer as its characters are at connecting to their own fictional lives.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.