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Mark

The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)

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Just rented this one from the Coen Brothers, and like all Coen collaborations it left me feeling I'd witnessed great moviemaking and pondering the meaning for days. If there's an existing thread on this or the Coens, please redirect; meanwhile I'd like to start a dialogue about this one because it's been replaying in my brain. Unfortunately the library only had the VHS, so no benefit of director's commentary or other DVD extras that would help decipher the plot.

Acting was super (Frances McDormand was great as usual; Tony Shalhoub was almost unrecognizable in his best role ever as a slick lawyer); cinematography was mesmerizing; toying with the noir genre while updating some of its conventions was effective. So what's it all about?

spoilers1.gif

What stayed with me most is the notion that silence within marriage is a deadly force. Thornton's character, Ed, is taciturn, apparently one-dimensional; he relates how his wife Doris proposed marriage after a few dates because she wasn't going to learn much more about him than she already knew, and he concedes that's true. So you've got a married couple believing they know everything about one another, therefore shutting down lines of communication, eventually leading to a series of miscommunications and tragedy.

Ed's initial plan to get $10,000 to invest in a dry-cleaning business hinges on his (apparently correct) belief that Doris is sleeping with her boss, James Gandolfini; rather than confront her he starts a stealth blackmailing campaign to extort the money from Gandolfini. Gandolfini miscalculates the source of the blackmail note, confides in Ed, and kills the man he thinks is responsible; eventually all the major characters end up accused of and paying for crimes they didn't commit, although none of them are exactly innocent.

There are a few overt Christian references: Ed commenting that he and Doris attend church once a week -- for Bingo -- and that he doubts Doris believes in an afterlife; as Ed stares at a crucifix he says he feels a sense of peace and comfort in church; before he's executed, he prays he'll be reunited with Doris in a place where there'll be some means of communication to say what he couldn't say on earth.

The most honest moment between the couple comes when Ed appears to be lying in order to save Doris from being convicted of a murder she didn't commit; there's a moment of connection between Thornton and McDormand that's so well-suited to both actors' understatedness. Another resonant moment is at a relative's wedding, when a drunken McDormand keeps saying to the bride, "It's (marriage) so g--damn wonderful" over and over.

Much about the movie was over my head; as usual, the Coens' quirky collection of characters and quips is greatly entertaining, but I've gotta say the subplot with Scarlett Johannson as a teen-age pianist lost me, as did the very strange scene involving Gandolfini's wide-eyed widow who thinks her husband was abducted and probed by aliens (very entertaining scene, still).

Then there's a question directed at Ed by two different characters -- "What kind of man are you?" Is the idea that even Ed doesn't know what kind of man he is? Or that he's known all along, and his Mr. Cellophane act is just an act?

This is a disjointed post, I know, but any fellow A&F'ers who can weigh in with some thoughtful interpretation will be much admired.

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Just caught this. Mark's thoughts really capture this one well. I certainly found this trending towards disjointedness in the end--that it never really gelled in its theme's of uncertainty.

But I'd comment that the subplot with Johanssen's pianist was integral to the understanding of Crane's psyche as someone who doesn't say much, but sure thinks he knows a lot more than he does.

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Just caught this. Mark's thoughts really capture this one well. I certainly found this trending towards disjointedness in the end--that it never really gelled in its theme's of uncertainty.

Yes, the film has an interesting pro or con in that while being a film about uncertainty, it has a half finished or rough draft vibe to it. I could never tell if this was intentional or not.

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This has my favorite last lines of any Coen Brothers movie...

Ed: 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.

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Just caught this. Mark's thoughts really capture this one well. I certainly found this trending towards disjointedness in the end--that it never really gelled in its theme's of uncertainty.

Yes, the film has an interesting pro or con in that while being a film about uncertainty, it has a half finished or rough draft vibe to it. I could never tell if this was intentional or not.

SPOILERS

There's some great visual transformations in here, too--the car wreck, the hubcab transforming into a flying saucer into a doctor's reflective tool.

And I loved that Thornton, the almost wordless Ed Crane, has more dialogue than any other character in the film due to his narration being rewarded at 5 cents a word. Priceless reveal.

But, rough draft--that's a really good way of putting it. I suppose it could be intentional, but I really found myself wishing that they'd developed the story (or the edit) through one more round. Too many things resolved without much uncertainty (Tolliver, the affair, dry cleaning as a good investment even, the death penalty sentence).

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But, rough draft--that's a really good way of putting it. I suppose it could be intentional, but I really found myself wishing that they'd developed the story (or the edit) through one more round. Too many things resolved without much uncertainty (Tolliver, the affair, dry cleaning as a good investment even, the death penalty sentence).

The only problem I had with the story is the way they just dropped the complication of what happened to the blackmail money, which is never addressed. Outside of that quibble, I didn't really find the picture to feel like a rough draft. Regarding the financial prospects of dry cleaning, I don't think that's ever really the point. Crane is confronted with a potential way of altering his life and acts on it. The actual investment opportunity behind that potential alteration is beside the point. It's not really an attempt to try and make a lot of money -- Crane's motives are more enigmatic than that, I think. I recall that Ethan Coen described the movie as "the film Martin Heidegger would have written if he'd gone to Hollywood," or something along those lines. And it's no accident that Tony Shaloub's lawyer touches on the Uncertainty Principle and then goes on to portray Crane as "Modern Man." The film isn't just an exercise in film noir conventions, which,for me, excuses the perhaps unrealistic way the chain of events is kicked off.

I do agree about the ending, which is absolutely beautiful. The entire picture is filled with beautiful moments. I think it's one of the Coens' best films (probably trailing only MILLER'S CROSSING). I keep waiting for it to be re-evaluated and acknowledged as one of their great achievements, but it hasn't happened yet. Maybe one day.

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I keep waiting for it to be re-evaluated and acknowledged as one of their great achievements, but it hasn't happened yet. Maybe one day.

Likewise. I have seen it in the theater a number of times, and I never ceased to be amazed at how beautifully constructed it is. The way the end of the film merges all the Bergman angles and shadows with the Coen's fanciful take on noir cinema is thrilling. Jeffrey Overstreet has a The Man Who Wasn't There t-shirt. I am still jealous.

I once had the odd experience of seeing a double bill between this film and The Big Lebowski at a theater that would periodically open a full bar in the back for these cult screenings. Most of the audience was geared up for Big Lebowski belly laugh mode, but kind of sat through The Man Who Wasn't There apprehensively laughing at things that could possibly be funny, but really aren't. It was such a good example of the cognitive dissonance that the Coen Brothers are so famous for.

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Regarding the financial prospects of dry cleaning, I don't think that's ever really the point. Crane is confronted with a potential way of altering his life and acts on it. The actual investment opportunity behind that potential alteration is beside the point.

I can't be certain, but I'm observing you may have misunderstood me. I'm saying the Coen's resolve too much, including the quality of the investment in dry cleaning by having Ed read it later in the film. I'm not worried about its unrealistic aspects; I am saying that its too tidy to really be about uncertainty.

Edited by Buckeye Jones

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I can't be certain, but I'm observing you may have misunderstood me. I'm saying the Coen's resolve too much, including the quality of the investment in dry cleaning by having Ed read it later in the film. I'm not worried about its unrealistic aspects; I am saying that its too tidy to really be about uncertainty.

Your observation's correct -- I certainly misunderstood your point. But I'm still not sure I agree with you (this is assuming I've managed to grasp it this time around). So you're suggesting that the way the Coens resolve the different threads of the narrative work against what they're trying to do thematically? As opposed to A SERIOUS MAN, in which they leave a number of the threads completely unresolved, resulting in a multifaceted web of ambiguity that magnifies that picture's myriad ideas and questions? Provided that this is what you're objecting to (and please, correct me if I'm still failing to follow your point), I'd argue that these differences between THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE and the more recent film are simply the result of different subjects. That is, THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE strikes me as a much more insular film than A SERIOUS MAN. To be rather reductive about the whole thing, I would say THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE is about Ed Crane while A SERIOUS MAN is about the world around Larry Gopnick (and how he responds to it). And so while the open-ended plot elements are integral to A SERIOUS MAN, they serve a different, more conventional purpose in this film. Ed Crane ("modern man") is the mystery of this film moreso than the world itself, the way I see it. The external narrative exists mostly to throw different shades of light onto him.

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I keep waiting for it to be re-evaluated and acknowledged as one of their great achievements, but it hasn't happened yet. Maybe one day.

Likewise. I have seen it in the theater a number of times, and I never ceased to be amazed at how beautifully constructed it is. The way the end of the film merges all the Bergman angles and shadows with the Coen's fanciful take on noir cinema is thrilling. Jeffrey Overstreet has a The Man Who Wasn't There t-shirt. I am still jealous.

I have watched it once, and I agree that it is beautifully constructed, but I think that the big problem with the film (and the RT critics consensus agrees) is that it stays emotionally distant from the audience for it's full running time. I think it is an entertaining and very well executed film, but I don't feel any kind of connection with the character(s).

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Your observation's correct -- I certainly misunderstood your point. But I'm still not sure I agree with you (this is assuming I've managed to grasp it this time around). So you're suggesting that the way the Coens resolve the different threads of the narrative work against what they're trying to do thematically?

Ahhh! I have no idea what your comment was about, because I haven't seen A Serious Man, and was afraid to spoil it, so I didn't read it. But yes, the above summary is more or less about what I think "Man Who Wasn't There" cheats with in the final act.

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To be rather reductive about the whole thing, I would say THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE is about Ed Crane while A SERIOUS MAN is about the world around Larry Gopnick (and how he responds to it).

Yeah, one could say that The Man Who Wasn't There is the Coen's L'Etranger. Both are very existential films. The first is classically so, while the latter embeds the Coen's existentialism in contemporary Judaism.

Edited by MLeary

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