Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton) doesn't have much to say. He's married to Doris (Frances McDormand), a hard-nosed and sharp-tongued would-be social climber who's carrying on with her boss, department store owner Big Dave Brewster (James Gandolfini) in hopes of fast-tracking her way to a managerial position. Ed works at his brother-in-law Frank (Michael Badalucco)'s barber's shop. Michael's the principle barber, the raconteur. The guy who yacks incessantly to the customers. Ed keeps himself to himself. Doesn't say a lot. He just cuts the hair.
One day Ed cuts the hair of entrepeneur Creighton Tolliver (Jon Polito), who pitches him a business deal. $10,000 and Ed can buy his way into a dry cleaning franchise as a silent partner. Ed sees it as his ticket to a better life. He sends Big Dave a blackmail note, citing knowledge of his affair with Doris and demanding $10K. Big Dave approaches Ed for advice. Ed advises him to pay.
Big Dave coughs up the moolah, but by coincidence sees Tolliver at the drop point. Unbeknowst to Ed, Tolliver had already approached Big Dave as a potential backer, asking for $10K. Big Dave puts two and two together, makes five, goes to see Tolliver, beats the truth out of him and puts two and two together a second time, this time coming up with four. Big Dave approaches Ed again, only it's not advice he wants now. This time he wants Ed's head as a paperweight.
Things take an unexpected turn, however, and Big Dave ends up dead and Ed calmly goes into work the next day like nothing happened. Then a couple of detectives visit him at the barber's shop to inform him Doris has been arrested. The cops have wised up to her affair with Big Dave and - unbeknowst to Ed - the money she's been skimming from the department store - and come up with five. She's charged with murder and arraigned for trial.
Anybody cursing me for not flagging a "spoiler alert" alert right now should take a leaf out of Ed's book: sit down, lit a cigarette, watch the world drift past and ruminate on twists of fate that life conjures up. They should also take comfort from knowing that 'The Man Who Wasn't There' - as serpentine as its plotting is (and it's the equal of 'Miller's Crossing' in this respect) - reaches a point, about halfway through when Big Dave's wife Anne Nirdlinger Brewster (Katherine Horowitz) starts speculating about UFOs and government conspiracies, where plot ceases to matter. Where the whole film reaches a level of visual poetry (frequent Coen collaborator Roger Deakins achieves a pinnacle of the cinematographer's art that can justifiably be called genius). Where the visual poetry is matched by the verbal poetry of Ed's increasingly discursive and existentialist voiceover. For a character who has the absolutely minimum of dialogue, Ed narrates screeds of voiceover.
For the record, the plot as it develops (or devolves, or branches off, depending on personal opinion) encompasses Ed's old friend Walter Abundas (Richard Jenkins) and his pianist daughter Birdie (Scarlett Johannson), and hot-shot lawyer Freddy Riedenschnieder (Tony Shalhoub), a man who builds defences around the uncertainty principle and an almost Ayn Rand-like conception of the modern man. The film's title works on two levels: the disappearence of Tolliver, potentially a crucial witness in Riedenschnieder's defence of Doris; and Ed's estimation of himself.
As the fallout from his blackmail scheme takes ever-more unpredictable turns, bizarro twists of fate complicating matters to the point that when Ed confesses all to Riedenschnieder the lawyer dismisses his entire story because he'd be unable to prove a word of it (!), everyone but Ed seems to pay the price. Like dominos falling, everyone he knows topples; is brought down. Finally, he sees in Birdie's talent for the piano a chance to be a positive influence in someone's life; a chance at redemption. Fate has other ideas in mind.
'The Man Who Wasn't There' is at once the perfect synthesis of everything the Coens had done up to that point, and a stylistic departure. A departure in that (a) it's their first and currently only production in black and white, and (b) their previous films, for all their quirkiness, are still immediate, if not visceral: think of the violence in 'Blood Simple' or 'Miller's Crossing', or the manic protagonists of 'Raising Arizona' and 'The Hudsucker Proxy' and 'O Brother Where Art Thou'. 'The Man Who Wasn't There' has a stillness about it; a detachment. Its aesthetic is reductive, to the point of a harsh clinically white set for the final scene, the sole focal point of which is the electric chair.
And yet it's a distillation of their previous work in terms of cultural touchstones: the convoluted fictions of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett inspired 'The Big Lebowski' and 'Miller's Crossing' and there are hints of both here as well as a dash of Jim Thompson - the blackmail element climaxes quarter of the way into the film, the murder element about halfway, and it's an out-and-out aftermath story thereafter; as well as in terms of visual tropes.
There is probably a scholarly paper somewhere out there entitled "Circular Images in the Films of Joel and Ethan Coen". It's probably as dry as a year-old madeira cake, full of pretentious waffle and will land its desperately earnest author a gig writing for Sight & Sound. I'm almost tempted to write it myself, but I've no truck with the kind of people who endlessly debated the meaning of the hat blowing through the woods in 'Miller's Crossing' (for fuck's sake, Tom says it himself: it was a dream and "it stayed a hat ... I didn't chase it ... nothing more foolish than a man chasing his hat") so I'll simply point out the Coens' love for round objects - the tumbleweed and bowling balls in 'Lebowski' and the hula-hoop in 'The Hudsucker Proxy' are here matched by circles of light, a hubcab, the hard white disc of a searchlight and a UFO. The latter is possibly a dream or hallucination. Possibly.
I'm tempted to say 'The Man Who Wasn't There' is the ultimate Coen brothers film, only it doesn't feature John Goodman, John Turturro or George Clooney in the cast. Still, what's inarguable is that 'The Man Who Wasn't There' is achingly beautiful. Beautiful to look at. Beautiful - in Thornton's laconic narration and a soundtrack consisting almost entirely of Beethoven's piano sonatas and the Archduke Trio - to listen to. It did seem, though, for a brief time - with the entertaining but determinedly mainstream 'Intolerable Cruelty' and the just plain average 'The Ladykillers' as follow-ups - that it represented the Coens' peak. Then they made 'No Country for Old Men'. Which goes to show how much I know.