Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Writer: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
DP: Roger Deakins
Editor: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Tricia Cooke
Score: Carter Burwell
Producer: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Francis McDormand, Jon Polito, Scarlett Johannson, Tony Shalhoub, James Gandolfini
Distribution: USA Films
Length: 1 hr. 56 min.
The contention some people have with the Coen brothers is that they laugh at their characters from a place of moralistic nihilism. Perhaps Jonathan Rosenbaum's review of Barton Fink best describes how it can feel watching their films. He felt that Barton Fink found its titular character to be a fraud, it found other artists to be frauds, it found the titular character's employers to be frauds, and it found the American ideal of the "common man" to be a fraud. Characters in Coen brothers films aren't shy about expressing their ideologies, but rarely are those ideologies validated.
I would agree that the Coens deny all their characters any reward for having principles, and that they don't seem to endorse any kind of belief system as an alternative to the ones they negate. But there are moments of warmth, moments with a marked lack of cynicism in their films. It was another thing Rosenbaum noticed in Barton Fink, saying: "what is it the Coens do believe in? Friendship, perhaps."
I believe "friendship" is a good answer to that question, but not an exclusive one. Perhaps the Coens' films believe in no ideology, but believe in the human need to have an ideology. They believe in the complexity of people, the consequential complexity of communication, and that the ideals people adopt are really strategies to simplify it all. The Man Who Wasn't There is their most straightforward film in this regard, though no character expresses a particular ideology. Instead of ideologies, the film frames narratives as an attempt to simplify human communication.
Though it does have a continuous arc, the film's plot consists almost entirely of false starts. We see the beginning of a film noir in which Ed Crane, the main character played by Billy Bob Thornton, pulls an elaborate con on the man with whom he believes his wife is having an affair. We see the beginning of a courtroom drama in which Ed Crane needs to work with a lawyer to save his wife from a death sentence. We see the beginning of a story in which Ed leads a friend's musically-minded daughter to fame and success. We even see the beginning of a '50's sci-fi pulp tale. We see the end of none of these.
We do understand, however, that it's Ed Crane's own fault that none of these stories play out. He balks at his relationships and does everything in a solipsistic, roundabout way that always ends up bringing things to a grinding halt. Thornton plays Crane as a man who keeps a straight face for the whole movie and never raises his voice. But there's also a kind of yielding vulnerability, a part of him that acquiesces and backs off whenever he detects personal conflict. When he enters into a deal with the character played by Jon Polito, a businessman in need of capital, he says perhaps the most aggressive thing he says in the film: "You're not gonna screw me on this?" When he says this, it seems like he's just going through the motions, asking it only because he feels it's what he's supposed to say in the moment; after all, he said himself that he didn't feel the need to consult a lawyer, and when Jon Polito's character insists on proving his honesty, Crane immediately apologizes for suspecting him and tells him it's not necessary. The film is full of these small errors in communication.
The first shot of the film, in the same way as the opening shots of Fargo, Miller's Crossing, and The Big Lebowski, shows us an object that describes the main character. The camera holds on a barber pole, spinning in place and encased in glass; the only activity is when the camera moves and we can see reflections on the glass. Ed Crane is static, spinning in place, and he spends the movie encased in glass as the camera shoots him through windows and casts him in silhouette. He never really reaches out to anyone, he just reflects. The cigarette in his mouth is there largely so he doesn't have to talk and so he can light other people's cigarettes. His boldest action in the entire film is that he narrates, and even then we learn at the end that his stylized prose was imitated and fabricated, and he apologizes to us for that.
We find that the inability of narratives to fully form in his life existed before the events of the film. The film takes place in 1949, and most of the male characters are World War II veterans. Ed, however, was exempt from the draft for medical reasons. I said before that the film's characters don't express ideology, and that's true, but we do get an inkling of the beliefs held by the culture Ed lives in: When another character hears he was passed over by the draft, he says to Ed: "That's tough." We then begin to see that Ed's stoic acceptance of everything people say to him and everything bad that happens to him is in part a bid for a place in a society that he failed to serve. With no war stories, he pursues other stories, but none of them pan out because of the very reason he wanted them in the first place: To have a sense of purpose, to communicate with people more smoothly, and to feel he took control of his position in his community.
Ed's lawyer is also a man who likes to simplify communication through narrative, but not because he's inept at communication or afraid of it. He does it because it's easier to manipulate people that way. It's through him that the film expresses its thoughts on the complexity of true intimacy through his summation of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. He says: "Our minds...our minds get in the way. Looking at something changes it." On the immediate and simple macro scale, looking at and interacting with things is easy. On the infinitesimally microscopic - and infinitely intimate - scale, things get tricky.
It's through the lawyer, who at one point flagrantly disregards an objective truth in favor of a narrative he deems "more plausible," that the film breaks down Ed's chosen mode of personal interaction. Though Ed doesn't intend to manipulate people, his attempts to compartmentalize and simplify his relationships become acts of manipulation rather than acts of genuine affection. The other characters, whether they know it consciously or not, won't stand for this.
Where the film falls short is that it never actually investigates the complexity of relationships, just comments on the despair it generates. But should the film be interpreted as a surrender to this despair, or as a character study of a man who has surrendered? I believe that this is where the Coens run into a conflict with their audience. There's an unavoidable urge to see movies as synecdoche, to decide that because films are small compared to real life, the elements therein should be seen as devices meant to imply something greater; we expect that a character who holds a certain ideal represents all people who hold those ideals, that a character getting punished represents an indictment of not just that character, but everything that character stands for. The Coens resist this; they actively try to contextualize each of their films. The main character of The Big Lebowski is "the man for his time and place." They claim Fargo is a true story even though it's not, attempting to give the characters not just the gravitas of real people, but the contextual uniqueness of real people. Their films are marked by art design intended to give a very clear and solid sense of place, and they exaggerate cultural tics unique to particular communities to outlandish scales.
If this is indeed the Coens' goal, perhaps they have not yet succeeded at applying enough context to their films that they overcome the automatic urge to view them as metaphors for larger things. Maybe their problem is that they haven't yet figured out how to represent that in a way that is truly cinematic. It's also possible that because of they way they shrink ideologies into character traits makes their characters look silly when they act under the belief that their ideologies are greater than themselves. But I believe that we can see it happening, and that we can engage with their films on this level, especially when I look at the last lines of The Man Who Wasn't There (Ed Crane's last words to the audience, before he exits the film's reality), because it doesn't get much more straightforward:
"I don't know where I'm being taken. I don't know what I'll find, beyond the earth and sky. But I'm not afraid to go. Maybe the things I don't understand will be clearer there, like when a fog blows away. Maybe Doris will be there. And maybe there I can tell her all those things they don't have words for here."
Pessimistic? Maybe. It certainly sounds that way, to say that the words to properly communicate with people don't exist on Earth. But again, maybe this isn't the view of the entire film; maybe it's better for us to see these words simply as what they are: The words of Ed Crane, a man who may not command our respect, but perhaps deserves our sympathy.