The Man Who Wasn’t There often gets lost in the folds of the Coen Brothers’ oeuvre. Flanked on one side by towering cult classics like Fargo and The Big Lebowski and acclaimed art films like No Country for Old Men, A Serious Man, and Inside Llewyn Davis on the other, it comes off as a trifle—a stylish little noir pastiche that the brothers dashed off while more ambitious projects were in utero. It bombed at the box office and received a pleasant, if understated, critical reaction, making no impression on the general public. The Rotten Tomatoes blurb, describing it as an “emotionally distant” but “clever tribute to the film noir genre,” summarizes the standard verdict.
As someone who instinctively reads the reviews of films before watching them (I know, I know), I went in expecting exactly that—a clever, but ultimately empty, tribute to the film noir genre. What I discovered was a masterpiece, not only the best film in the Coen Brothers’ filmography but one of the greatest of all time. A few people have argued something along these lines, but never to my satisfaction; Mike D’Angelo’s rave, for example, is characteristically well-written, but in my opinion a colossal misreading (you’ll get why if you read his piece and mine). So here goes. Spoilers ahead. Let’s hope I am more adept at translating my feelings into words than the reticent barber we will be studying.
The Barber’s Paradox
Great filmmakers have a habit of communicating their basic thesis with the opening moments, so when setting about the daunting task of decoding a really complex film, it can be helpful to start at the beginning. This movie opens in voiceover, with a simple statement:
Yeah, I worked in a barbershop—but I never considered myself a barber.
Ed Crane, our protagonist, goes on, “I stumbled into it…well, married into it more precisely. It wasn’t my establishment. Like the fella says, I only work here,” but these clarifications are ancillary; that first line is really all you need to understand the opening monologue. In fact, that first line is all you need to understand the entire film. The distinction that Ed makes here, between working in a barbershop and being a barber—in other words, the Sartrean idea that existence precedes essence—sits at the heart of The Man Who Wasn’t There.
Ed Crane is the existentialist archetype of the Stranger. Unlike everyone around him, and unlike the Greek philosophers, Ed understands that he’s not essentially anything at all. Not a barber, not a husband, not a friend, not a criminal. At his core, he is merely an existent being. (When he is asked, “What kind of man are you?” Ed responds, “Huh?” as if the idea of a “kind of man” were totally foreign to him.) This is a dark, powerful insight, one that emotionally isolates him from virtually everyone else in his life (he has no friends and is not close to his wife Doris). The insight also manifests in his profession; as a barber, he cuts people down to their existence. “Sooner or later,” he says, “everyone needs a haircut.” Sooner or later, everyone needs to drop all the pretenses. The motif repeats itself over and over again—he removes Tolliver’s wig, he shaves his wife Doris’s legs. When he speaks, unlike his brother, he says exactly what he means and nothing more. He always wants to get to the core of things, to cut to the chase, which is why he finds this grand, frivolous world so unnerving.
At one point Ed stares down at a customer’s hair with a vexed look and mutters, “It just keeps growing back…It’s part of us…” He’s right. Our essence sits on top of us, like a head of hair, and as much as Ed yearns to strip it away, it always grows back. We cannot get rid of it. To the chagrin of the existentialist, our purpose becomes something like a “part of us,” and that’s what disturbs him so deeply. With a tip of the hat to Bertrand Russell, I will call this predicament the Barber’s Paradox.
The Barber’s Paradox explains our hero’s totally detached demeanor. He feels that in some sense, he exists outside of himself—the “Ed” that presents to the world, that has a job in a barbershop and a wife and a home in the suburbs, is an independent object that the real Ed, the spectral being, can study like a specimen in a jar. Take the scene where he kills his wife’s lover Dave. The important part of this sequence is not the killing, which could pop up in any 40s noir, but Ed’s reaction to it. His eyes drift from the body down to his own hands, (providing a Kuleshov link without the edit)—in traditional existentialist fashion, Ed is terrified by his own freedom. It is a curse, not a blessing.
Freedom, as damning as it may be, also sits at the center of the existentialist worldview; acting freely, acting authentically, is the greatest expression of humanity. At the beginning of the film, Ed’s whole life is in service to other people. He’s not a barber because he loves it, but because he “married into it.” He spends most of his free time bored out of his mind at bingo games and wedding receptions that his wife has dragged him to. And so Ed chooses to take the action that will set the events of the film in motion, investing in a dry cleaning startup that a customer is offering shares in. Dry cleaning, of course, is not what fascinates Ed—no, he’s drawn to the idea of acting entirely on his own accord. The dry cleaning gambit offers him a ray of hope, a chance of escape from his miserable, inauthentic life.
This apparently innocuous action kicks off a complicated domino effect that ends up with Doris in prison for a crime she didn’t commit and two people murdered. The world responds to Ed’s exercise of freedom with swift retaliation. He should never have been so naive to think that he could simply act in good faith (“How could I have been so stupid…” he muses in voice over). Remember, the universe of The Man Who Wasn’t There does not share its protagonist’s outlook. This is what makes the Barber’s Paradox a paradox—how can an existentialist live in a world populated by people who reject the existence/essence distinction and the idea of true freedom? As Ed gradually learns, the answer is hazy; apparently you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Despite his self-deprecating musings, though, Ed still has not learned his lesson. Living alone, he decides to help a teenage girl named Birdy improve her piano skills—yet another attempt to act in a totally self-determined fashion, as an expression of human freedom and good will, and as a repudiation of bad faith. If you have been paying attention to the film, the results are predictable, but they still land with crushing sadness: Birdy has no musical talent, and she mistakes his kindness for lust and tries to give him a blowjob while he’s driving. He begs her to stop, but it’s too late. He veers off the road and crashes in a nearby ditch, injuring both of them (it is the only moment in the film when we see him genuinely distressed). Once again, his instinct to act freely has been met with confusion and violence from a world in which true freedom is forbidden. The Paradox remains unsolved, and we even get an eloquent little monologue from Ed (eloquent by his standards, at least) expressing it:
When I walked home, it seemed like everyone avoided looking at me, as if I’d caught some disease. It was like I was a ghost walking down the street….I didn’t see anyone. No-one saw me. I was the barber.
There’s something I haven’t mentioned—this movie is absolutely littered with images of aliens. It’s set in the 1950s, when Unidentified Flying Objects infected the public consciousness, and we see images of them over and over again: Ed reads about Roswell in the newspaper, the spinning tire from the car crash morphs into a flying saucer, Dave’s wife is paranoid that her husband was abducted by aliens, we see an alien-themed comic book in the prison, and finally, Ed is visited by actual aliens in the film’s penultimate scene.
The word alien comes from the Latin alienus (“strange, foreign”) from alius (“another, other, different”), which stems from the Proto-Indo-European root -al, meaning, poetically, “beyond”. Alien shares these roots with another word, a word that a philosophically-inclined reader might be surprised has not popped up in this piece yet. That word is “alienation.”
Alienation is the technical term for what I have been calling the Barber’s Paradox. The SEP defines it as “the estrangement of the self both from the world and from itself,” which certainly seems to capture Ed Crane’s situation, even filmically; we often see him isolated in the frame, staring off into nothingness (in one exquisite scene, he simply parks his car and watches the shadows dance on the wall of his house). Heidegger may have described this feeling as unheimlich (uncanny). All of these words are trying to capture the feeling of being foreign to oneself.
In this movie, aliens symbolize their etymological cousin, alienation (it’s no coincidence that the Coen Brothers, one of whom touts a philosophy degree from Princeton, intuited this connection). The flying saucer symbol first shows up during the aforementioned car crash, which is perhaps the film’s darkest moment of alienation, and comes to be associated with existential angst. When Dave’s wife comes to Ed and warns him that UFOs are snatching people off the streets and spiriting them away, her moral panic is rooted not in a fear of literal aliens, but of figurative ones; a fear of the existentialists who walk among us undetected, threatening at any moment to convert (“abduct”) normal, well-meaning people to their dangerous philosophy of life. These aliens have the capacity to act freely and the ability to recognize the meaninglessness of the universe, both of which pose a threat to the status quo. Little does she know she is talking to one.
On this reading, The Man Who Wasn’t There shares DNA with Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, released a decade later. Both are about aliens—one figurative, one literal—dropped in the midst of human society and forced to adapt. Both aliens are utterly affectless. (Oh, and they both star ScarJo, albeit in very different roles.) Like the protagonist of Under the Skin, Ed doesn’t quite understand how to function socially; he never talks, he never laughs at jokes, he never has sex with his wife, and he isn’t even perturbed to learn that she has cheated on him with another guy. He simply says, “It’s a free country.” Existentialists never change.
This film is rich enough to warrant many different interpretations. For example, there are many subtle indicators that Ed is a closeted homosexual, enumerated here. I think this reading would gel with my interpretation—being a gay man in the 50s would feel a lot like being an alien forced to disguise oneself as a human to fit in. There are also parallels to be drawn with the Red Scare; the aliens in Ann Nerdlinger’s paranoid monologue could just as well be commies as existentialists (although unlike the gay reading, there is no explicit evidence for this elsewhere in the film).
The penultimate scene, in which a flying saucer visits Ed while he is waiting for execution on Death Row, is perhaps the most enigmatic in a movie jam-packed with enigmas.
It’s the first time the audience sees a UFO up close, as opposed to in comic books, newspapers, and whispered rumors, and it’s also the first time our protagonist sees one. But given the analytic precedent we’ve established, we know the Coens are not showing us literal aliens—no, for the first time in his life, Ed is staring his own alienation in the face. The sequence becomes clearer when we put it in the correct context: as soon as Ed finishes the last page of his memoirs—in other words, when he is finally able to view his life as a completed “story”—he understands the Barber’s Paradox. The Coens reinforce with voice-over:
While you’re in the maze you go through willy-nilly, turning where you think you have to turn, banging into dead ends, one thing after another…But get some distance on it, and all those twists and turns, why, they’re the shape of your life. It’s hard to explain, but seeing it whole gives you some peace.
This echoes Nagel’s concept of the Absurd, the liberating feeling of stepping back and looking at your absurd little life from a distance, recognizing the “conspicuous discrepancy between pretension or aspiration and reality”. Most of the time, according to Nagel, we “ignore the doubts that we know cannot be settled, continuing to live with nearly undiminished seriousness in spite of them.” But recognizing this absurdity gives Ed, as he says, a feeling of overwhelming peace. Once he acknowledges that his attempts to accommodate the world have utterly failed, that like all true paradoxes, the Barber’s Paradox cannot be resolved, he is able to accept his predicament. Having imparted this final wisdom, the aliens fly away into the Beyond, returning to their etymological homeland.
Ed nods and walks back to his prison cell.
Our hero does not try to escape his punishment; a good existentialist must accept the consequences of his actions. In the final scene in the execution room, we see several motifs of the film repeat—the attendants shave Ed’s legs, stripping him down in a now-familiar gesture. Ed notices that the onlookers have the haircuts that he gives to children at the barbershop, implying that the essence we carry around as adults was bestowed upon us long before we ever had our first job. The human is inducted into the anti-existentialist world at a young age. As Ed is strapped into the chair, he gives one of the more beautiful soliloquies in film history:
I don’t know what waits for me, beyond the earth and the sky. But I’m not afraid to go. Maybe the things I don’t understand will be clearer there, like when a fog blows away. Maybe Doris will be there. And maybe I can tell her all those things they don’t have words for here.
For the Aristotelian, who believes everything can be sorted into neat labeled categories like BARBER, CRIMINAL, HUSBAND, etc., words are very useful because they delineate telos. But for the existentialist, words are not just futile, but insidious; they exacerbate the everpresent “fog” of human life. By their very nature, words cannot capture the unheimlich—the unidentified, and unidentifiable, objects of the universe. The philosopher Ethan Coen wrote his thesis on, Wittgenstein, has something to say about this: “There are things that cannot be put into words…They are what is mystical.” Ed is unafraid to say goodbye to life; finally he will be able to escape the shackles of human existence; finally he will leave the barbershop and embrace the Wittgensteinian mystical; finally, he will be fully enveloped by the nothingness that Sartre claims “lies coiled at the heart of human existence.” For Ed Crane, the Man Who Was Never There, death is the purest kind of life.
We hear the sound of a UFO opening its doors. Ed Crane—and this “clever tribute to the film noir genre”—is zapped away into the Beyond.