The Coen Brothers’ movies are primarily character studies of people who are so ordinary that they’re weird. In The Man Who Wasn’t There, Billy Bob Thornton plays Ed Crane, a barber with a bad haircut. Ed narrates the story in a monotone, monosyllabic voice. Ed’s life is literally monochrome: the movie is shot in black and white. Ed smokes constantly, even when he’s cutting hair. He runs the second chair in a two-chair barber shop, morning till night, in 1949. To call Ed dull verges on flattery.
Next, the Coens usually have their weirdly ordinary little man try for once to do something out-of-the-ordinary, then have him stand and watch helplessly as the dominoes fall, ultimately on him. In Fargo (1996), a man tries to fake his wife’s kidnapping for ransom money. In The Man, Ed suspects his wife (Coen mascot Frances McDormand) of having an affair and decides to kind of do something about it.
It’s not giving too much away to say that Ed somehow ends up on Death Row for something he didn’t do. How he gets there is the key, and I won’t give that away. The irony which takes the ending beyond cliché is that Ed does do something fairly bad. But, as usual, he’ll never get any credit for that.
The movie’s title comes from the 1920s doggerel verse: “As I was walking up the stair/ I met a man who wasn’t there/ He wasn’t there again today/ I wish to God he’d go away.” It’s appropriately ironic that while many of us have read that verse at least once, nobody ever seems to know who wrote it.