The 365 Best Films of the 2000s

Heroes of the Zeroes: The Man Who Wasn’t There

Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.

“The Man Who Wasn’t There”
Rated R

The Coen Brothers have long shown crack timing for cosmic jokes about life’s general disappointment. In 2001’s “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” they breeze through a barber’s banal life with visual panache, prickly wit and some of their most swooning gestures in their career-long love affair with the English language.

Spinning barber poles always create the same image, much like the turning world of taciturn Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton). Ed’s misanthropy has settled into a joyless marriage to Doris (Frances McDormand). Hell, his life’s work kills what’s meant to grow. (Only the Coens could fuse existentialism with hair.) After attempted blackmail backfires, Ed’s life collapses into criminal behavior.

Thornton’s sourpuss face and countenance are built for black-and-white, and cinematographer Roger Deakins renders sunlight an expressive expose — one scene forming a sort of cell out of shadows and sunshine. Meanwhile, Jon Polito’s spastic, sweaty shyster, Tony Shalhoub’s fast-talking attorney and a bit of UFO theorizing offer the Coens’ usual wacky grace notes.

But it’s the Franz Kafka fatalism and motif of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle that make “Man” singularly strange on the Coens’ resume. That principle suggests looking at something changes its properties. By envisioning escape, Ed binds himself more firmly to misery.

The principle holds for “Man,” too; few outside of Coen cliques paid this nihilistic neo-noir much attention. Perhaps that’s the Coens’ wryest, slyest punchline: To watch Ed Crane is to largely forget him and, upon returning to him, revisit the pleasures of meeting him for the first time.

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3 Responses to “Heroes of the Zeroes: The Man Who Wasn’t There”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nick Rogers. Nick Rogers said: My wife and I had not performed the sex act in many years. #bestfilmsofthedecade […]

  2. Nick Rogers says:

    mia: Thanks! A few weeks ago, I remarked on Facebook that this project sometimes makes me feel like I’m watching something again for the first time. There have been a few others that felt that way, but this was the one that prompted that comment.

  3. Sometimes, the more you look . . . the less you really know.

    This movie fueled my hunger for neo-noir.

    Great review, per usual!