The Man Who Wasn’t There

themanwhowasntthere5Today we examine the thirteenth script in our survey of the Coen Brothers. Because I found no working link to the script, I can’t post a PDF to the site forums for read-along purposes. Also, since IMSDb is the only resource, I am forced to quote the text without the usual page number identifications.

Someday [maybe when I retire from my day job] I would like to work back through all these Coen Brothers reviews and use them as a guide for understanding their work as a sum. I bring this up now because, currently, I see their scripts naturally sorting into neighborhoods. Everyone knows you can’t see an entire city from any one of its neighborhoods, but get in an airplane and the patterns become plain.

I know The Man Who Wasn’t There seems like it is next door neighbors with Blood Simple, but I actually think it resides beside A Serious Man. It is one of the Brothers “philosophical” scripts. I am half tempted to say the Coens intend The Man Who Wasn’t There as an adaptation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

Whether that last statement is true or not, I stand by the idea that this script is meant as much as philosophical treatise as it is entertaining story. These Brothers [or at least one of them] is obsessed with the epistemological problem that forms the basis of Descartes’ radical doubt. Usually, they take one step away from the classic problem [of knowing one’s own existence], and focus on the problem of knowing another’s existence [Burn After Reading is a great example.]. In this script, however, the problem examined is fundamental. An inverse Cartesian syllogism [It is inverse in meaning and ontology, as though it were Aristotle who formulated the proof. Are my Brothers empiricists… at heart.]:

I have no effect on the world.
Therefore, I do not exist.

I admire these Brothers because they have balanced themselves carefully on the tightrope which connects idea exploration and commercial success. All too often, these pillars of Art are seen as mutually exclusive. The belief that an artist cannot say something meaningful and also be popular is THE WORST aesthetic belief humans have ever created. Even though the belief is falsified by innumerable examples, the belief persists. The Brothers exist as a first premise in the argument’s refutation.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) In no way is this script free of exposition. In fact this script serves as adamant proof of my idea that voice-overs are ALWAYS exposition. It was the Coen Brothers [in Blood Simple] who first taught me that this doesn’t have to be a bad thing—it just requires forethought on the part of the authors.

As an author you can include voice-over as exposition just so long as the voice-over introduces a mystery along with all those boring facts. The voice-over in The Man Who Wasn’t There succeeds because of the way in which it’s written. Look at the very first line:

ED (V.O.)
Yeah, I worked in a barbershop. But
I never considered myself a barber…

The OPENING LINE is written as a logical contradiction. Ed is telling us:

I am A and I am not A.

In logic a proposition with this form cannot be true. Our “hero” has staked himself out as an unreliable narrator, AND given us to understand that [in purely logical terms], he does not exist [because contradictions do not exist]. Because I have no access to them, I can’t ask them if this [seemingly] throwaway line was written with all the intent I want to ascribe to it. However, it doesn’t take a whole lot of talent with refabrication to deduce that a story titled The Man Who Wasn’t There, whose main character begins his story by denying the logical possibility of his existence, mixes those two elements on purpose. For this reader, it was a FANTASTIC beginning. In this moment, I will go as far as saying it was the best first line I’ve ever read.

The mystery begun in this initial line continues to bloom through the next several:

We track back from a barber’s pole.

ED (V.O.)
…I stumbled into it–well, married
into it more precisely…

Notice how the connection is drawn between how Ed landed in his profession and how he chose his life partner—he “stumbled” into both. It may not be much of a stretch to stumble into your line of work, but stumbling into marriage is subtextually revealing.

We track back from a shopkeeper’s bell triggered by an opening
door. The pull back and tilt down show the top of the head
of a customer entering in slow motion.

ED (V.O.)
…I wasn’t my establishment. Like
the fella says, I only work here…

We track along a shelf backed by a mirror and holding pomade,
aftershave, hair tonic, a whisk brush.

ED (V.O.)
…The dump was 200 feet square,
with five chairs, or stations as we
call ’em, even though there were
only two of us working…

In these lines we see how little connection Ed has with his environment. The shop is tiny, and a “dump”. Both adjectives imply Ed has no ambition. He is, perhaps, satisfied with his station in life? On top of this there are five chairs and only two barbers, meaning the business can’t be thriving or they would need more help.

We track in on a big man in a barber’s smock scissoring across
a lock of hair that he pulls taut between two fingers of one
hand. In slow motion, he laughs and chats.

ED (V.O.)
…Frank Raffo, my brother-in-law,
was the principal barber. And man,
could he talk…

By principle of literary foil, we now see what being satisfied with this barber’s life looks a lot like Ed’s brother-in-law, Frank Raffo. He is gregarious and connected, engaged with the business of cutting hair and listening to his own voice.

Five short lines of moderate exposition, and yet, the reader now knows Ed as though he has been a part of the family for years. I’ve not seen this movie, but I can perfectly envision the monotone washed out feeling this dialogue will have when spoken over the images. This is a perfect portrait, in five short lines, of a man in full.

So, yes, there is a tremendous amount of exposition in this script. In the hands of our technically proficient Brothers, it all turns to subtext:

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) All that refabricated subtext centers on Ed’s inability to connect with the world and the people in it. The Brothers invite us to conclude their title should be restated as:

The Man Who Wasn’t a Man

to match the opening line of voice-over. There are a multitude of ways I could go about showing this to be true, but I have determined to focus on Ed’s [almost] quixotic sexuality. During the course of the script, Ed blatantly discusses sex [or sex serves as the foundation for the way in which their relationship blooms] with four different people. They are:

1. Doris
2. Dave
3. Creighton
4. Birdy

I’ll cite examples of interactions he has with each of these characters. I’ll follow the order in which I have them listed… instead of following the chronological order of the plot.

Diedrickson waits for him to leave. He takes a hit from his
glass. Finally:

…I’m sorry to add to your burden,
Crane, but I’d want to know it it
was me. Your wife was pregnant. First

A pause.

…Well, there it is.

Another pause.

…I’m sorry.

He mutters to himself:

…Hell, I hope I’ve done the right

My wife and I had not… performed
the sex act in many years.

Diedrickson stiffens.

…Well, that’s not really my

He is hastily digging for money.

…I’m sorry. Well, there it is.

He leaves a couple of bills on the bar and mumbles as he

…Good luck, Crane.

billy_bobDoris has made a cuckold of Ed. Why do the Brothers include this extra plot point?

Of course they delight in torturing their characters and, judging by his reaction [even though muted, his response to Diedrickson reads like a scream] this new information serves as a shock. Subtextually speaking, I believe the Brothers add this extra bit of emotional pain to Ed’s story to demonstrate how little Doris thought of Ed’s masculinity. In archetypal terminology, a cuckold is the lowest form of man there is—he is not a fit object for sympathy—instead the cuckold has always been an object of derision. Doris’ contempt for Ed is so complete, she does not even acknowledge he is a man.

As the other third of the triangle needed to form a cuckolded man, Big Dave must feel the same way about Ed’s masculinity as Doris. What I love about the subtext in Dave’s relationship with Ed is how explicitly the Brothers draw Dave’s opinion about Ed into the literal text. In the scene in which Ed and Dave fight to the death, Dave continually asks:

…What kind of man *are* you?
When viewed from the Fade Out, this scene amplifies in brilliance. It will eventually be worth quoting in its entirety, so:

…It ruined me. This money. No annex.
I’m all shot to hell.

So you paid the guy?

Big Dave stares without speaking.

After a long beat:

…What kind of man *are* you?


What kind of man *are* you?

Big Dave–

I’d understand if you’d walked in
here. Socked me in the nose. Whatever.
I deserved it.

I, uh…

I’m not proud of what I did. But

No one talks.

Big Dave sighs.

…Yeah, I paid up. As you well know.
And then I went and found the pansy.

He looks at Ed.

…Got nothin’ to say, huh? Yeah,
well, you already know the story. I
didn’t, I hadda beat it out of the
pansy. *Your* money.

No response.

…What kind of man *are* you?

Big Dave rises.


He crosses around the desk and adds, sadly:

…I’m all shot to hell.

Three times Big Dave asks his question. He never gets a response. I will leave the implications of this for question three, but: I will tease that answer by saying… I think what they’ve done here is macroscopically beautiful. These Brothers can write.

Next up on the sexual subtext list is Creighton. As a character, he demonstrates how much forethought the Brothers put into their stories. It would be natural to wonder [since Ed foregoes sex with his wife…for years at a time] if Ed is gay. Creighton answers that possibility:

They both knock back the whiskey. Creighton leans back and
gives Ed a heavy-lidded stare, a faint smile on his lips,
his hairpiece slightly askew.

Ed stares back.

After a beat, without taking his eyes of Ed, Creighton reaches
up and loosens his tie. An almost imperceptible wink.

Ed stares.

…Was that a pass?


You’re out of line, mister.

Creighton throws up his hands apologetically.

No problem!

Way out of line.

Right! Strictly business.


So, Ed is not gay, right? At first glance, his denial seems pretty emphatic—especially since it moves from the just “out of line” to the more serious:

Way out of line.

What Ed doesn’t say, however, is the much more precise:

I’m not gay.

Which implies [to this reviewer] that what Ed objects to is not the idea of sex with a man, but the much more categorical, idea of sex in general. Sex is not something Ed understands. He doesn’t know what to make of physical contact with another human. I submit that Ed’s sexual orientation is not ambiguous, it’s absent.

The Brothers solidify this idea with the character of Birdy. That Ed shows interest only in Birdy throughout the entire script is not a matter for debate. Ed likes Birdy. However, notice how fascinatingly she is introduced:

His attention is caught by a distant knock of wood. Someone
is raising the key-guard on a piano across the room.

The person can only be seen only obscurely, from three-
quarters behind, through the sales floor’s jumble of
haphazardly arranged instruments. The person begins to play.

Ed listens. The piece is slow, sweet, almost a lullaby.

The player, unaware that there is an audience, plays on, and
Ed listens, eyes narrowed against the smoke curling past his

The piece ends.

There is not, in the length of that introduction, a single physical attribute described. Birdy is not the super-sexual physical instantiation given to the character by casting a young Scarlet Yohanssen, SHE IS A PIECE OF SWEET MUSIC.

Later on, she becomes the thing she is meant to signify, but in her introduction [at least] she is nothing but a “lullaby”. I find it hard to capture the genius I see in this initial description. So much of our contemporary Art is cobbled by its profound inability to be subtle. The Brothers knew where they were going to take this character and yet they resist the urge to paint her in the Lolitaesque adjectives that would make her plain (1).

This is genius level subtextual writing:

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) What is immaculate in the individuation in this script is the voice given to Ed. I’ve not yet seen this film, but I wonder if it wasn’t a mistake to strip it of its color. A case where the Brothers did not yield to their own impulse toward subtlety. You cannot read this script and not feel how colorless Ed is. He reads as a heart rate monitor in flatline. I’ve already discussed how brilliantly the Brothers chose his words when we discussed exposition. To say any more would be to flirt with a critical lack of subtlety. I’ll simply award them all the points, and highly recommend that you read this script… slowly. It’s genius is not obvious—like a canon. It will not explode in your mind like Hamlet. But, dammit, this is one fine piece of craftsmanship.

10 out of 10 points.


1. Yes, I mean plain in both its senses.


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