This film again returns to one of the Coen Brothers' key themes: the consequences of actions -- the ripple effect one act can inevitably lead to.


This page was created on December 2, 2001
This page was last updated on May 29, 2005


Directed by Joel Coen
Writing credits: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Billy Bob Thornton .... Ed Crane
Frances McDormand .... Doris Crane
James Gandolfini .... Big Dave
Michael Badalucco .... Frank
Katherine Borowitz .... Ann Nirdlinger
Jon Polito .... Creighton Tolliver
Scarlett Johansson .... Birdy Abundas
Richard Jenkins .... Walter Abundas
Tony Shalhoub .... Freddy Riedenschneider
Christopher Kriesa .... Persky
Brian Haley .... Krebs
Jack McGee .... Burns
Gregg Binkley .... The New Man
Alan Fudge .... Diedrickson
Lilyan Chauvin .... Medium

Produced by Tim Bevan (executive producer), John Cameron (co-producer), Ethan Coen (producer), Eric Fellner (executive producer), Robert Graf (associate producer)
Original music by Carter Burwell
Cinematography by Roger Deakins
Film Editing by Ethan Coen (as Roderick Jaynes) Joel Coen (as Roderick Jaynes) and Tricia Cooke

MPAA: Rated R for a scene of violence.
Runtime: 116

QuickTime Trailer
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The Man Who Wasn't There
Carter Burwell

1. Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 8 In C Minor Op. 13 / Birdy's "Pathetique" 2. Mozart: The Marriage Of Figaro: Che soave zeffiretto 3. Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 25 in G Major Op. 79 / Bringing Doris Home 4. I Met Doris Blind 5. Ed Visits Dave 6. Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor Op. 57 / Ed Returns Home 7. I Love You Birdy Abundas! 8. Nirdlinger's Swing 9. Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Sharp Minor Op. 27 10. The Fight 11. The Bank 12. Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor Op. 13: Adagio Cantabile 13. The Trial Of Ed Crane 14. Beethoven: Piano Trio No. 7 in B Flat Op. 97: Andante Cantabile


The Coen brothers' THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE is a brilliantly photographed black-and-white absurdist noir set in Santa Rosa, California, in 1949. Ed Crane (the outstanding Billy Bob Thornton) is a slow moving, barely talking barber who doesn't seem to want much out of life. He has virtually no relationship with his wife, Doris (Frances McDormand), who has more fun with her boss, Big Dave (James Gandolfini). But when a strange character (Jon Polito) lets it be known that he's looking for a silent partner to finance his dream business (something he calls dry cleaning), Ed sees a possible way out of his doldrums. Just like any good James M. Cain novel (which the Coens cited as a major influence on the story), blackmail, deceit, violence, murder, and double crossing ensue, all with the magic Coen twists and turns.

THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE looks simply magnificent; the cinematography, the outfits, and the set designs perfectly capture this intriguing post-WWII paranoid world embodied by misfits, cheats, simpletons, con men, and other ne'er-do-wells. Thornton, who also supplies the wonderfully droll narration, gives a bravura performance as Ed, the everyman who has never strayed from the straight and narrow--until now. Always with a Chesterfield in his mouth, he wanders from scene to scene almost as if he's a spectator--even though he's at the center of everything that goes on. The supporting cast, as usual in a Coen brothers film, is outstanding, including McDormand, Gandolfini, Polito, Tony Shalhoub, Richard Jenkins, and Scarlett Johansson as a young potential piano prodigy.

Review By

Pastor, Artesia Christian Church, Artesia, CA

Darrel has an incredible love and interest in the cinematic arts.
His reviews usually include independent and significantly important film.

This film again returns to one of the Coen Brothers' key themes: the consequences of actions -- the ripple effect one act can inevitably lead too. Other Coen Brother movies with this idea include Fargo and Raising Arizona, where one crime keeps leading to others. Usually those crimes arise out of passion (the desire for a child in Raising Arizona for instance). But in The Man Who Wasn't There, the lack of passion makes it all seem a bit darker. We can't blame all the trouble on the passion, because most of those involved, especially Ed, live in a world devoid of emotion. And in the end, he can tell the story with neither regret nor remorse. And I left wondering whether I was allowed to feel pity for him. He certainly needs it.

Ed Crane is a barber. And a blackmailer, and a killer, a husband -- but all without passion. Barbering is his job, but he really doesn't care one way or another about cutting hair. When he discovers his wife is in fact cheating on him, it doesn't much upset him. Even when he kills his wife's lover, it is just something that happens -- no big deal.

In some ways The Man Who Wasn't There is similar to Ghost World. (Interesting coincidence: Scarlett Johansson has important roles in both films.) Both films deal with people who don' t seem to have a place in the world. People who aren't important enough to even be noticed. At one point, Ed calls himself a ghost. In a courtroom scene, his attorney only refers to him as "The Barber" as if that is all there is to him.

Visually the film's black and white film noir style allows director Joel Coen to play with light and shadows. Often there are stark black and white images. The light and shadows serve as the passion that seems missing in the characters.

In one scene, the fast talking attorney from Sacramento describes Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle (as his defense strategy) while standing in a bright light with vertical bars of shadow in both foreground and background. He has passion for winning the legal game, but he is passionless (shadow) about the people involved. Ed and Doris, with no passion at all, sit in the shadows the whole time.

The Coen Brothers always bring us strange and interesting characters. Like the movie itself (shot in black and white), Ed Crane is full of gray. Billy Bob Thornton's face is set in stone throughout the film. His voice is as monochromatic as that of Joe Friday in Dragnet. We get to see Ed shaving his wife's legs as she bathes - an act that, for most people, would be erotic foreplay, but here we see just how passionless this marriage and these people are. And because there is no passion, we have to wonder what there is in this life.

The Man Who Wasn't There © 2001 USA Films. All Rights Reserved.