The Man Who Wasn’t There is a movie by the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan. They’ve also made movies such as Fargo, No Country For Old Men and O Brother, Where Art Thou. Their next movie is due out for Christmas: a remake of a John Wayne-Western, True Grit.
The Man Who Wasn’t There is an American tragedy. I have found that many of the characters and events in this movie are also to be found in the most famous of all American Tragedies, Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman. There is a salesman, there is a husband and wife, there is a suicide, there is a car crash and our main character dies. But The Man Who Wasn’t There uses the same ingredients in a completely different storyline.
The movie is shot in colors but then changed into black and white. The black and white transports us to the 50s, when this story is taking place, but it’s an almost ridiculously beautiful black and white, which has nothing to do with old-style movies. I found myself almost distracted from the movie by how amazing the black and white looks.
Beethoven’s music is played throughout the movie, in particular the piano sonatas. It’s almost as if the music is one of the characters. In fact, I am pretty sure it is.
The leading role is played by Billy Bob Thornton: he plays Ed Crane, a barber who has reached a stage of emotional distance for life in general, and his own life in particular. Ed Crane goes through his life with a stone-faced indifference to things around him, something that is sometimes seen as coolness in today’s world, highlighted by his cool-hero-like cigaret.
There is one moment when Ed Crane lightens up, where a hunger for life comes to the surface: it’s when he walks away from a party in a department store, to the section where they sell pianos (yeah, those were the days…) and there is a girl, Birdy, playing the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata.
When you watch this clip, notice a few things:
1) the clumsiness of Birdy’s playing, which makes the music more connected to a human being somehow, instead of creating “perfect” background music.
2) how Ed asks if she wrote the music herself, obviously confusing musical beauty with the girl’s persona. When she answers that it’s Beethoven who wrote the music he is embarrassed (acted in such a good way by Thornton)
3) The whole scene is interrupted by Ed’s wife, who stands there as a deadly ghost, as if rudely waking him up from a beautiful dream.
I don’t want to spoil it for people who wants to watch the movie by telling the story and how it ends. But to me, the movie shows the danger of being detached from the world around you. There is somehow a consensus that if you plan something, do it without emotions and things will go better (as in, for example, “revenge is best served cold). In this story, that thinking turns into one disaster after another.
On top of that, the movie has so many layers. There is the piano teacher, who Ed takes Birdy to audition for, just to get lectured to that the girl, while playing the right notes, has no heart: “she can make very good typist”.
One review I read on this movie was thinking this had to do with how the Coen brothers sometimes get criticized for being technically perfect while lacking of emotional depth. Somehow the reviewer describes the piano teacher as being correct in his assessment of the girl.
That reviewer seem to completely miss the point of the scene, as far as I can see. I mean, it’s quite obvious, at least to me, that this teacher is an idiot, and arrogant at that. The whole scene is an example of an egocentric fool in a position of authority telling someone who “is not an expert” that they were wrong in being extremely touched by how the music was performed. The key words spoken here is “I don’t pretend to be an expert”, as Ed says. Well, someone else in that scene does.
That things fall apart you will understand quite soon in this movie. At one of the lowest points for Ed Crane, the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata is played. Ed is like a ghost, as a living dead man among people. I am quite certain Beethoven would have liked how the tragic atmosphere in that music is used.
Whenever there is an emotional moment, when Ed Crane’s soul is woken up, there is Beethoven Sonata played. As if that is the language of emotions that he is not being able to communicate in this world. The opening of the movie tells us something, with the static, seemingly endlessly rolling machine showing, while the painfully beautiful Beethoven Trio (The “Archduke” Trio) is played as a stark contrast. As Ed says at the end of the film:
“I don’t know where I’m being taken….Maybe Doris will be there. And maybe there I can tell her all those things they don’t have words for here”.