The opening shot of THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE (2001), the Coen brothers’ homage to classical Hollywood film noir, depicts two black and white lines swirling side by side up toward some unseen destination. The image is hypnotic and abstract, more reminiscent of visuals found in an old sci-fi movie than a gritty film noir. But then the opening credits end, and the camera pulls back to reveal that what we have been looking at is no more than a traditional barber pole. Soon after this shot we are greeted by the familiar conventions and iconography of classical Hollywood noir: cops, criminals, and endless billows of cigarette smoke, all framed by moody black and white cinematography. And yet, the impact of that opening visual still lingers in our memory. The echoes of sci-fi influence are understandable; for THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE is not just a well-crafted neo-noir, but also a movie about an alien stranded among humans.
The unorthodox genre-melding in TMWWT should come as little surprise to the viewer. We are talking about the Coen brothers after all; the same guys who found a way to adapt The Odyssey into a music-filled comedic romp through the Depression-era deep South. The two have made a career out of drawing from the most unlikely source material and re-presenting it in unique ways. Their approach can often be shocking in its execution. For instance, we are initially confused when Ed Crane, the film’s main character, does not feel like the standard, Bogart-inspired hero we expect to meet in film noir. Instead, Crane appears to have been lifted straight off the pages of Albert Camus’ classic existential novel, The Stranger. But we soon adjust to his quirks; we remember that every creative decision is purposeful in a Coen brothers’ film.
Crane (brought to life by a superb Billy Bob Thornton) leads a humdrum existence as a small-town barber in post-war California. He drifts through his days in a state of permanent apathy; this is a man so beaten down by the mind-numbing routines and absurdities of modern life, he has lost the motivation to fake happiness. “I don’t talk much,” Crane admits in the opening scene, “I just cut the hair.”
When the plot’s noir elements kick in and, after numerous blackmails and double crossings, Crane and his wife find themselves individually charged with murders that neither of them committed, the barber absorbs this bad news with the same bored indifference he might convey while trimming a customer’s sideburns. For Crane, the absurdities of an unjust murder charge and a haircut are on equal existential ground. “You ever wonder about [this hair]?” he asks Frank, his chatty boss and brother-in-law. “How it keeps on coming…And we cut it off. And we throw it away.” In a town full of citizens who dutifully maintain their immaculate lawns and white-picket fences, Crane seems to be the only one aware of our inevitable end: buried six feet underground, our once proudly displayed haircuts still growing in a pathetic reminder of better days.
By exaggerating their main character’s existential crisis, the Coens are able to turn the conventions of film noir upside down. The alienated protagonist has long since been a staple of the genre. In the 40s and 50s, the noir hero was a mouthpiece for a generation struggling to adjust to life in the Atomic Age and its unspeakable horrors. Yet when we see Crane commit blackmail, not out of greed or jealousy (the standard criminal motivations in film noir), but simply as a way to escape the tedium of modern life, when we see him so often lit and photographed in a way that isolates him from his surroundings and other characters, we recognize a level of alienation that is usually reserved for sci-fi films. The film’s inclusion of subjects like Roswell and UFOs further our suspicions. Ed Crane is an alienated noir hero, not by his own volition, but because he does not belong to this world.
The final scene of THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE takes place in a room so blindingly white and empty it appears infinite in size. The room’s sole piece of furniture is an electric chair (Crane’s punishment for being convicted of murder). But this is unlike any prison or execution room we have ever seen. As the prison guards guide him to the chair, Carter Burwell’s melancholic piano score swells beneath Crane’s narration. “I don’t know where I’m being taken,” he says while the undertaker straps him into the chair. “Maybe the things I don’t understand will be clearer there.” He speaks like a man preparing for a long trip instead of his untimely death. Once again our suspicions about the purpose of this room resurface. And then the undertaker places the cap on Crane’s head and our questions are answered. Typically, a prisoner’s head must be freshly shaved before he goes to the chair. Moments before his “execution,” Crane still sports the same haircut he has worn throughout the film.
This is no execution room.
This is a spaceship.
So it is with a pristine hair cut, the symbol of modern life’s absurdity and meaninglessness, that Ed Crane departs our world; film noir’s most unlikely hero, sent rocketing through the universe in search of answers for his time spent on Earth.